Friday, 31 May 2013

find a way to spend a week in Semey...

Semey is regrettably famous under its old name Semipalatinsk for decades of Soviet nuclear testing that only stopped in 1991. The city's subsequent rebrand focuses on culture and history; it's a proud place, all museums and monuments. Dostoevsky lived there. My friend Arday quickly revealed himself to be one of those gratuitously generous hosts so familiar since Turkey. He runs Semey's largest banya complex and gave me the run of it, along with every other gift he (and some I) could think of. I left after two days, unsure where I'd go but unable to keep receiving so much in good conscience (odd considering what comes next). I rode around a while, halfheartedly casing camp-spots before picking up a cryptic chain of text and email which I followed to the central fire station. Somehow I was expected and in no time bike and I were fire-engined to a sponsored hotel, as long as you need. My week was immediately diaried by the full, official guest treatment. A five day glory-tour of fire stations, memorials, museums and galleries replete with drivers, guides, top-brass lunches, press and translators. The latter were unable to explain exactly how I'd been identified and contacted; it remains a mystery. I think my actual (un)employment status was lost in translation and as days progressed, organisational fawning increased and my situation spuriously spiraled, I rather lost the nerve to come exactly clean. Faintly fraudulent but quite fantastic. Each evening brought a different officer knocking my hotel door to drive me to drinks and dinner. Monday's press conference spawned such a volume of TV and newspaper coverage that a hundred miles later I'm still struggling to spend any money in the shops. Reports were forwarded on to the Siberian press and I spent an enjoyable if quite weird hour on Google translate reading about the 'courageous fire-philosopher'. The best comment on one .ru page about the English Fireman Cycling Siberia made me feel perfectly vainglorious: madness of the brave, we sing appropriate songs. I expect it sounds really good in Russian.
 Unlike the real ticks that you can flick away the mental ones seem to cling on across continents. Having appointments again, expectations and 9ams, I suddenly, predictably, found myself quite sleepless. Haggard by Thursday; I left - sluggish under load of gifts after farewell lunch with the Chief - happily back to my real ticks. Tomorrow I'll enter Russia. I write this from the internet connection of the Kazakh Agricultural Import Tax Office near the border, who of course invited me for tea. There is that other typical question, why are you traveling like this? One obvious answer is for all the unexpected bits.
So many photos taken that I didn't really bother with them myself.
Posts from Russia will be mileage dependant.
hotel dawn

chief, dep, matey Dmitry and I


Dostoevsky museum

really liked this memorial

view from this morning

Friday, 24 May 2013

because of the climate

The wind comes up early with the sun these last days. My chilly, quiet tent gets quickly hot and noisy, making it difficult to waste the morning. But I try. Correcting for conditions in those slow stages of waking, fumbling earplugs and less and less bedding until the sweaty inevitable. In sleepy innovation one morning I deftly slung and tied my blanket over the flysheet for shade and in this way lay-in past eleven. Getting up I try to refrain from the tendency to vain speculation about wind direction relative to road. For or against, it blows regardless. Two days upwind, two days down; perhaps I've finally found my peace with it. I arrived in Semey blissed out on a brilliant South Easterly.

When you think of a trip like this the weather is obvious; being its constant subject. People always ask what do you do when it rains? Another favourite question is what if you get a puncture? (favourite answer - go home, of course). But it's not only the climate and thorns. There's an entire system of physical circumstance, the adverse interconnectivity of which still surprises me. Meadows mean ticks. Still water, mosquitoes. Gusts mean dust, wind; blind. Warm days, flies in eyes (I've a little mirror always to hand). Rains mean sleeplessness and exhaustion misanthropy. Those long, tented mornings when everything's controlled for are valuable. In Iran I complained that headwinds offer no achievement. They do; to be unruffled. But I try.

Last week I had a day of perfect inclemency. First were all the normal, petty complaints. Wrong road backtracks, dropped kit backtracks, upwinds and parasites. Spilling first dinner and then coffee in mosquito evasion. Rain and then punctures and getting hit in the face improbably by my bicycle in their repair. The afternoon was more pernicious. I arrived first and alone at an horrific crash to many screaming and one becoming silent. Futile CPR and then telling his mother; glad of training but awfully impotent without any language. We were sixty miles from anywhere and I spent all of my drinking water trying to wash my hands. Later in the rain I accepted a ride to the next town, to drink and send frantic emails. I camped in a wet building-site and in the morning there was first a lovely text from Oleg's family, Kaleb where are you now? We miss you and are very very worry and then an extremely welcome email from my old trauma-care instructor, debriefing me yesterday's drama. The sun dried everything; here and there a soar of eagles would up from the edge of the steppe. A friend I made in Almaty said something poignant about realising the potential for joy and sorrow to be simultaneous.

Given the weather I decided to forgo my lake detours and find a way to spend a week in Semey, planning to be invited. Arday flagged me down near Kalbatau, gave me a telephone with his English speaking son. Would I stay with them?  Here I am.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

holiday harashor

Normalna means fine in Russian; this week's harashor means good. Nothing's changed, except two things. My head and my time. The one had a little click, a mental shift from endurance to enjoyment, while the other is newly limited. I booked a flight from Ulan Bator to be home before the end of Summer (assuming the UK has one). I don't regret missing China, actually. I've ridden along the border here and there and it looks menacing (did I even see it inching forwards?). Days that can be counted are suddenly precious. Routine routines gain a soon-to-be-missed quality, spitting toothpaste out the tent and always knowing what the moon is doing. The space and quiet have taken a delightful new aspect, like they had in that morning of my tour through Europe and the Balkans; like a holiday again. The dusty truck stops, where men lunch and bluetooth eachother dogfighting clips, are charming and exotic again. Instead of bemoaning what the occasional villages haven't got I've been loading up on who and what there is, making brief friends and happy camping. Correcting the I idle on the steppe to I relax on the steppe; I'm steady on the steppe; sunbathe on the steppe. I snooze... Excuse me, where's the barber shop? (my Russian leaps and bounds), and can I buy the ingredients for a stew, perhaps... is there any cold beer? Of course not, no problem, normalna. As an enormous campsite Kazakhstan excels. I do small days, forty, fifty miles with plenty of flowerfield stops and then feast for hours by rivers in meadows. Yesterday morning I made French toast.

At the moment I'm staying with the kind family of a small-town dentist, Oleg. He interrupted my listmaking outside the shop for the usual chat (which this week I enjoy) and then invited me. I wasn't planning to be invited. There's an insight into how for-granted Asian hospitality becomes. With the right kind of loitering - the right demeanor and questions in the right places - you can fairly accurately plan your home invitations. Terrible! Anyway I wasn't planning it but they're welcoming people and I'm staying a couple of nights now. Being fed and laundered, the usual sauna - banya. The family are Russian-Kazakhs. Oleg's friends last night were a Chinese Kazakh and that rare beast a Kazakh-Kazakh. In Central Asian Republics everybody's nationality has an ethnicity prefix; something to do with Genghis Khan and Stalin I gather. Anyway they're all here, in lovely multikulti. On the road I met a Mongolian-Kazakh who'd returned from Dubai to give birth to her son in order that the Arab-Armenian father wouldn't be able to take him away. I was impressed at the pragmatism, the international family planning.

So you read my last's little-bit-lonely subtext well; thanks for all the emails! Moods lift. I'm looking forward to some lake detours next week (the Mongol Hordes used to R&R in the area) and then, not so much, the built-up glut before the border. I wonder how long I can keep my holiday spirit during the Russian visa race. I'm dawdling to the start line but if, as hoped, I'm meeting Kris in Irkutsk (remember it from the Risk board?) I'll have to do eighty-mile days for almost three weeks straight. They'll at least be homeward miles, kind of.

Glorious Republic of Kazakhstan


Monday, 13 May 2013


I bought a netbook in Dushanbe. Might as well come clean about it; instead of reading books now I watch movies in my tent. Only rarely of course, the rest is all wilderness survival stuff. The idea was that I'd write more, whatever, I like being able to reload my music sticks daily. More choice, better living, haha. Instead I just get pissy when the stuffy, faux-Euro Kazakh bars' wifi doesn't work and the staff ignore me, panicked to find that real-life Europeans aren't quite as well turned out, or indeed as polite, as they'd thought. I slept in a park in Taldykorgan last night, something I don't ordinarily do. But I wanted to wake up somewhere. Kazakhstan is pretty big and, I see, pretty empty. I wasn't disturbed, slept late and had breakfast on the bazaar. I've misjudged a little and find myself with far more time to cross the country than I need. I can't get into Russia until June 1st, but the border's only six hundred miles or so. I idle on the steppe.

Almaty was nice, but for the traffic. I said the roads stink of money and meant literally. Luxury 4x4s seem more obligatory than fashionable. There are lots of bicycles, high-end mountain ones, but they're strictly for leisure. If you want to get anywhere it has to be an empty SUV. Lovely. Still the nice bits won over and having got the Mongolian visa unexpectedly immediately I spent a few days being welcomed. It was ace to bump into Dan, a friend of several friends from Bristol. We spent some time and the chat felt like home. One afternoon I went with Koreans, Danes, Kazakhs, Russians and an Australian for a hillside picnic but we were suddenly stormed on and yielded to the 4x4(!) and an older gent's terrace, and then his comprehensive hospitality. The sauna broiled and blistered and nudity was insisted upon, save protective caps. Vladimir whipped us in the cramped heat - hilariously - with herby sticks. Soviet traditions are as predictable as they are generous and you could see the vodka coming afterwards. We left relatively unscathed and after a year of these strange stranger scenarios I catch myself once in a while taking it all for granted.

So yeah I'm killing time. What else? There still feels a newness to my aloneness. I chat to myself alarmingly often. Emails are at a premium. Dad wrote to say that Alma-Ata means Apple-Father in Turkish. Rob wondered when we'd next make a sunny day on the plot. Jen told me about reclaiming found furniture; Laura about chip-pan fire demos in Vienna. Rachel said the Bluebells are out and Mum sent a picture to prove it. In this much space it's especially good to be connected. William's family sorted me out some fantastic coffee (thank you!); I gorge on it and try not to ride too fast on the endless flat. Without Tieme I've finally gotten round to making my idiot-sheet of Russian vocabulary, and together with the Kazakh-Turkish linguistic overlap and the Persianesque hospitality here there's a sense - to make a big simplification - of one huge Asian landmass, divided only by history. Obvious really.

chez Vlad


another dawn

alone photo