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Journey to Dakar

Good-bye Russia and hello Ukraine

in Border crossings, Russia, Ukraine by on August 19th, 2010

For the next 3 days we will be crossing the Ukraine, this former Soviet republic (gained independence in 1991) is a rather large country in terms of size. It was surprisingly easy leaving Russia after all the schnick-schnack entering. But then the Ukraine customs made us buy some more insurance, interrogated Sabby on her life story due to some confusion over her purpose of travel (“Transit” or “Tourist”?). After 2 hours of back and forth, they finally let us proceed.

There is only one road that leads towards Kiev (some 870km from the border) it seems and it goes on for hours and hours through fields of sunflowers, wheat and corn. Not to mention, the melon trail that started in Tajikistan continues…

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Around 7pm we decided to look for a place along the road to stay for the night and Sabby’s sharp eyes spotted a motel on the other side of the highway.  It turned out that this nondescript motel had some cute little wooden cabins in the garden. So we had our own little log cabin set amidst apple trees.  Interestingly enough, the room rates were based on 1-6, 13 or 24 hours’ stay…guess most guests do not stay long here despite its beautiful surroundings.

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Oh one more update, the landscape became more green and lush about 200km after Atyrau.  Much to MJo’s chagrin, no more camels!!  Instead, he now has a new obsession – road signs. We now have an extensive collection of photos of them in various languages.

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Foodie post!

in Journey to Dakar by on August 18th, 2010

As Sabby’s friends will attest, she is a HUGE foodie and she will travel for food.  Unfortunately, this trip has not been one of those foodie adventures.  Nonetheless, we have still managed to sample some of the local goodies, so this is a foodie post especially for Sabby.

The food in Central Asia was broadly similar across Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.  Not to mention a common love for dill, which Sabby does not like and will go to great lengths to pick out of her food.

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Soup with meatballs and vegies, tomato, cucumber and dill (evil!!) salad

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Shaslik, manty (Uzbek steamed dumpling filled with meat, similar to Russian pelmeni and Ukrainian varenky)

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Laghman (proof that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from the East), pelmeni with salad (note how Sabby has picked all the dill off her food)

And ever since Tajikistan, we have been seeing melons galore. Sabby loves loves loves watermelons and so we try to get some wherever we can, including at the Tajik crossing!
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Of course the culinary highlight of our trip so far has to be the meals we have on the road, creativity at its best born out of hunger and desperation.

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What do you do when you have dry stale bread and some Snickers bars which melted in the heat of the desert? Melted Snickers sandwiches of course!!

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The same concept of harnessing the sun's heat to melt stuff can be applied to making melted cheese sandwiches

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A miracle and a mystery in Volgograd

in Russia by on August 18th, 2010

When we were planning our route, Sabby told MJo that it would be a miracle if we made it to Volgograd and were still on speaking terms. And now here we are, in Volgograd, and still speaking to each other!

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V is for Volograd and we are still on speaking terms!

But that is not all to our adventures in Volgograd, there is still the mystery of the Stalingrad Madonna, a drawing done by a German doctor stationed at Stalingrad in 1942.  It was Christmastime and to cheer up the sick and wounded, he drew this picture of the Madonna and Child on the back of a Russian map.  After the war, the original was sent to Berlin and copies sent to England and Volgograd as a symbol of peace.

When he was in Berlin earlier this year, MJo had seen the original at the Kaiser Wilhelm Kathedral.  Whilst the copy in England is known to be at Coventry Cathedral, the Volgograd copy is said to be in a Russian Orthodox parish somewhere in the city. After unsuccessfully asking our hotel reception we took a cab to the largest churches in town. After an hour of searching through two parishes (and not a single person who spoke any English) we could not solve that mystery.  Anyone out there knows?

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Inside another Russian Orthodox church in Volgograd - no luck here either!

Volgograd was by far the largest city we have been in since leaving India. It took us more than an hour battling traffic (not a concept we are used to) just to get into the city. It was obvious that we were now in a European city in summertime as there were hot women in skimpy outfits everywhere. Welcome to Europe!

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What a change from Asia - women in skimpy outfits everywhere!

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We have officially crossed from Asia into Europe!

in Border crossings, Kazakhstan, Russia by on August 18th, 2010

With its proximity to Kazakhstan’s largest oilfield, Atyrau is a fairly rich city with many expats.  Its hotels cater to the many oil workers, so expect rather steep prices though the prospects of getting a hot shower in Atyrau are definitely much better than in Beyneu!  Another benefit is that you can actually get a decent gin and tonic in Atyrau.  And this we did at the Guns ‘n’ Roses Pub.  In spite of our hotel’s receptionist’s insalubrious description of the place, we found it to be a very cool spot, particularly taking into account that we were in the middle of Western Kazakhstan.

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Cheers at the Guns n Roses Pub in Atyrau!

The next day, we took a little side trip to see the Caspian Sea.  Initially we had visions of swimming in it and maybe even having a nice meal on the beach, a lá the French Riveria.  But those visions quickly disappeared when we realized that the last 10km or so of road leading to the sea was a little-used dirt road.  Hmm, maybe going to the Caspian Sea from Atyrau is not a common tourist activity?  In any case, MJo had some much-missed fun riding off-road.

Afterwards, we rode across the Ural River, which officially marks the line between Asia and Europe.  With that we officially made it to the European continent!
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Asia => Bridge over Ural River => Europe!

It was then a further 290km to the border.  We had to wait a little on the Kazakh side as we arrived at 7pm just as their dinner time started.  It also took us a while on the Russian side as we had to buy insurance for the bike, or at least we think that’s what we paid US$20 for.  Eventually, we entered the “Motherland” en route to the “Fatherland” (apologies for the bad joke).

Riding into larger cities can sometimes be a little tricky for us when we do not have city maps.  In this case, we did not have a map nor a hotel address.  So for a bit, we rode around trying to ask people for a hotel and getting lots of “preyama”, “eta” and “dar” (“straight”, “this” and “there” – the full extent of our Russian fluency). By now it was dark around 9pm which didn’t make since easier but eventually we got to a hotel near the railway station.

But there was one problem – there was no secure parking for our baby.  And even the hotel staff did not advise parking the bike outside.

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MJo sitting outside the hotel waiting for things to get sorted

Phone calls were made, and eventually the owner of the hotel who spoke some English, showed up.  “I have cottage over river. You come with me.”, she said.  Not having any other options by then, we did and 15min later found ourselves in a house in the suburbs of Astrakhan for the night.  It turned out to be a nice place with a large room and a garden. Once again, we have been lucky with finding a place for the night.

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Special report: how to take a shower without running water in the dessert

in Journey to Dakar by on August 17th, 2010

Proper showers are not always available in some of the places we have been.  But it is still (somewhat) possible to stay clean with these outdoor showers.  Essentially the set-up is one shower booth with a tank at the top which needs to be filled up with water.  If you are not too dirty, then taking a shower is not too complicated but if you are so dirty/smelly that your own mother does not want to be near you, then it is a three-man job to keep the water going until you are clean.  One guy has to fill up buckets at the base, one guy has to empty the bucket into the tank at the top and one man has to shower!

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The shower booth itself is fairly basic.

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Desert riding: Kungrad=>Beyneu=>Atyrau

in Border crossings, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan by on August 17th, 2010

Since leaving Tajikistan, our riding conditions have changed dramatically.  Much to Sabby’s delight, there are no more mountain passes or gravel roads.  Instead it is all seemingly never-ending tarmac roads through flat terrain now.  From mountains in Tajikistan, we then had desert in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, a very different experience altogether.

We started from Kungrad early at 7am and rode the 300km (the first 50km gravel then mostly tarmac) to the border easily.  After the border, a few of the blogs had mentioned that the road surface was very poor and likened the experience to “driving on the moon”.  For us, that 80km of unpaved road to Beyneu were rather “pleasant” after our previous experiences, we could average about 70km/h.  In retrospect, we were really glad that we started in India with a baptism of fire on an ancient bike through some of the worst roads, rather then the other way around.

The road from the border to Beyneu was not all that bad...

When we got to Beyneu, the first thing that MJo saw was a petrol station, and one which actually had petrol and no queues!!!  He was over the moon and after his “benzin depravation” in Uzbekistan, he instinctively wanted to fill up.  Sabby had to remind him that we did not have any Kazakh tenge (local currency) to pay for petrol to curb his enthusiasm (the only living things we met since crossing the border were camels and they didn’t exchange US$).

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With Lyoxa, a former Soviet Motocross champion, in Beyneu

We had been given directions to a local who was a former Soviet enduro champion, Lyoxa.  His workshop was located near the town entrance so it was easy enough to find.  He was very welcoming – he showed us photos of his former Motocross days and his recent rides and also changed money for us (at it was Sunday no banks were open and we needed fuel!).

With petrol money in his pocket, MJo was excited and raring to ride on.  The morning’s ride up to Beyneu had been easy enough that he felt he had another 430km to go.  So we decided to ride on to Atyrau.

The ride to Atyrau must have been the hottest ride we have had on this trip and this is in spite of the wind we got from riding at 120 km/h and the strong desert winds.  The air was just hot!  Riding through the desert, there is not much along the way to see, other then MJo’s latest obession – camels!  Ocassionally, there are some road signs for turn-off to villages, but then the villages must have been so far off that we couldn’t actually see them from the road.

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Camels!

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From afar, we wondered what historical monuments along the road these could be. They turned out to be very fancy tombstones!

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Random abandoned building in the middle of the desert, wonder what it could have been?

13 hours and 860km later, we made it to Atyrau around 9pm.  We set a new record for distance covered in a day, thanks to a nice road through barren desert land.

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Listomania – what do we talk about over the intercom??

in Listomania by on August 16th, 2010

Most of the time, we have no one else to talk to during our rides but each other. Given how much we have ridden, just what do we yabber on about all day??

  1. Instructions from MJo for Sabby to take photos
  2. Sabby’s random food thoughts
  3. MJo asking for Benzin
  4. Plans for a relaxing beach holiday in Koh Samui (we will need a vacation after this so-called vacation!)
  5. Economic and geopolitical thoughts about the countries we are traveling through
  6. Sabby’s random food thoughts again
  7. Figuring out directions
  8. MJo asking for Benzin again
  9. Past experiences in our lives
  10. Plans for future trips
  11. Last and probably most importantly, where will we be staying tonight?
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Listomania – one more of MJo’s new obsessions

in Journey to Dakar by on August 16th, 2010

MJo loves animals and on our journey, everytime we come across any animals, donkeys and camels in this case, he shouts “photo” to Sabby.  Here is some evidence of his obsession…

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Moynak The Aral Sea – cemetery of ships

in Uzbekistan by on August 15th, 2010

Sometimes, you just gotta let the boy play with his toys.  So MJo took the AT out alone, with no lugagge, for a solo, 210km, ride from Kungrad to Moynak (after we had already ridden 7 hours earlier in the day), whilst Sabby stayed in to rest her ankle.  The AT uncumbered by luggage, rides like a very different machine.  You can imagine MJo’s joy at riding his “Queen” again, especially on some offroad sections and in the sand dunes.

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As mentioned in our earlier post, Moynak is the site of one of the biggest environmental disasters of our time.  We wanted to share with you some pictures that truly bring home the point.

The photos below show the shrinking of the sea over time: 1st row L-R, 1960, 1970 2nd row L-R, 1990, 2000 3rd row, 2010

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And you can see the abandoned rusting fishing ships which once used to ply these waters.

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MJo also ran into some Spanish guys doing the Mongol Rally.

On a travel tip note, we stayed in Kungrad for the night.  Most people stay at Nukus (100km before)  from where they travel to Beyneu, but we decided to go to Kungrad as it was a good base for MJo to do his half-daytrip to Moynak.  There are not many accommodation options in Kungrad, at least not for foreign tourists.  But we came across this rather cool guesthouse in the parking lot of the train station.  It is also a chaikhana so they serve some pretty tasty grub there.  Like all Uzbek chaikhanas, they had an outdoor daybed-like set-up too, with speakers playing Uzbek music, it felt almost as though we were at a trendy lounge bar somewhere else in the world (KuDeTa anyone?).

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Listomania – newly developed quirks

in Listomania by on August 15th, 2010

Being on the road for a while, often with no one else around but us, can be boring sometimes.  On some rare (luckily!) occasions, we even get bored of each other’s conversation over the intercom while riding.  It is not surprising then that we have both developed some strange quirks/obsessions.  Here is a list of our newly-developed obsessions.

MJo

  1. Hardware stores – there is always one more nut, bolt or motorcycle spare part we can take along with us
  2. Afghan villages – he is compelled to take photos of every Afghan village we pass and the various donkeys that seem to be the preferred mode of transport
  3. Lithium batteries – the Spot needs lithium batteries which don’t seem to exist outside of the Western world, MJo lives in hope of finding them and visits battery vendors wherever we are to try his luck
  4. Benzin – as there is no petrol sold in regular petrol stations anywhere for the past 1,200km, he sees in every water seller a potential source of “private benzin” (the only way to get it in Uzbekistan) and tends to shout “benzin, benzin?” as we drive by

Sabby

  1. Melons – she loves watermelons and gets excited everytime she sees a watermelon-seller by the road (which is about every 10m in Uzbekistan) although sadly there is no space on the AT for any melons
  2. Trucks – she is now an expert in “truck-spotting” and is able to identify trucks of various national origins
  3. Chinese road construction crews – for her, Chinese road construction crews = tarmac roads = smooth ride; she also takes photos of retaining walls built by them as evidence of their superior craftsmanship
  4. Weight – concerned about the effect of weight (bike + luggage) on fuel consumption as well as bike falls, she constantly tries to get MJo to throw the 3 litres of engine oil (amongst other things) we have lugged along with us
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