If you ever feel that you need some space to think, we can recommend driving across Russia and Kazakhstan on a motorcycle. We passed through the Russian border at the top of a high Caucassann pass along the Darial canyon, the officials surprisingly friendly. There was none of the anticipated intimidating questioning or strip search of the bikes, we were free to pass in a matter of hours. The road wound down from the mountains, gradually becoming straighter and smoother. Tarmac without potholes was a treat compared to the haphazard paving attempts in Georgia, and we were glad it granted us swift passage across the FCO orange rated area where our insurance was not valid.
But as we left North-Ossetia, its friendly people and numerous police checkpoints behind, the road entered the farmlands, and did not waver, barely a bend or curve for hundreds of kilometres. Ryan was pretty happy for a while, the potato fields stretched out across the land in a growing frenzy the Irish can only dream of. But even the amount of potatoes eventually failed to entertain us as we drove on and on.
It was particularly difficult to find campsites out of sight and sound of the roads. The first night we followed a dirt track into the fields, setting up our tent as 3 friendly fisherman passed by. The next morning we were woken by a deafening roar as a crop spraying plane passed low over our camp. Our second camp in amongst the wheat fields came with a warning of tics that would ‘make our head go funny’, and a crazy shepherd who seemed to be over the moon to see us! It was hard to stay hidden In thousands of kilometres of flat open land.
As we neared Astrakhan we were glad of a change of scenery as the farmland gradually turned to the swamps of the Volga delta. We were pretty miserable by this point, not only are our bikes basically limited to 80km per hour, thousands of tiny biting flies now set upon us whenever we stopped, making the going arduous. We were glad to take shelter in our hostel and began to arrange our tyre collection and service of the bikes.
It was a particular relief to find the people of Russia certainly do not fit their stereotypes. Not only are they not the stern faced, steely eyed people of our movies, but they do not even drink vodka! Tea and cake is the fare of the land,and in the Volga delta they snack on silvery dried fish that they hang in their washing lines. Their hospitality was abounding. At one point we were stopped by Nik in his hummer to take photos and be fed cherries from the famous Rostov On Don orchards. We have since found out Nik is what one might call a ‘lad’. His instagram is filled with pictures of him in Speedos with babes in bikinis! We are a bit gutted we did not get invited for a ride on one of his jet skis!
Aside from its billions of biting flies that frequent the region each summer, the only notable thing about Astrakhan was the lovely mechanic we found. Kyrill and his mates spent a day servicing Ryan’s bike. Discovering a crack in the suspension link, a dubious looking aluminum weld was applied, and we pieced the bike back together giving it a good old clean. After a long day we sat down for tea and cake, discussing politics and Russian culture. It was lovely to sit in a simple house with people our own age and be normal for a while!
The long drive across the Western steppe, previously notorious for its nomads and wandering herds was undoubtedly awe inspiring. The vast emptiness was humbling, and it gave us a lot of time to think. The rich culture of Europe seemed so far away. For in one day in Europe, you could easily experience twisty mountain roads, forests, ancient towns, great coffee, seaside ports and incredible diversity of food. We realised we are incredibly lucky to be come from such a place and found ourselves craving the rich culture to be found there. Our minds also turned to our friends and family. The endless steppe causing us to feel far from home. We missed not being there for our friends as they get married and have children. Not being able to support our families through illness and hardship.The steppe caused us to question our motives, were we being selfish by abandoning our responsibility to our loved ones? Is this what we really want? Homesick struck us particularly hard, and we talked a lot about returning to Scotland to fulfil our dreams in the Highlands.
Nonetheless we continued on as steppe began to turn to desert and the temperature began to increase. Graveyard spotting became the ONLY game of the day, with some extravagant tombs looming out of the expanse. Why anyone would want to be buried out here is beyond us. They must reserve it for the mother in laws or awkward uncles that no one wants to visit in life let alone death! The steppe in Kazakhstan was also littered with nodding donkeys and gas fields, this gave us something to talk about at least, as we reflected on our carbon emissions, wondering why motorbike oil was so hard to come by in a country floating upon a black sea.
To be honest, apart from a small thrill when we crossed again from Europe to Asia, the only other interesting thing that happened to us as we crossed the steppe was a huge storm. It literally blew us off the road and we ended up squatting in an abandoned motel for the night. After barricading the door, we put Ed Sheeran on the speaker and settled in for a cosy night!
Eventually we reached the dusty border town of Beyneu. Beyneu is notorious in the overlanding community for being a desolate backwater, in which you stock up and leave as quickly as possible. A sarcastic article online had reliably informed us that all of the hotels were shocking, and there was absolutely nothing to do. So after stocking up we rode a fantastic 60 km into the desert towards the Uzbek border. We were feeling on top of the world as we set up camp after a stunning ride and settled down for a final document check.
As most of you know, Lottie is extremely clumsy and forgetful, it was only a matter of time before this caused us a slip up. As we checked our things, she discovered one vital document was missing. Her V5 or ‘moto passport’. We have been so careful with documents and always check we have everything before leaving a border or hostel, but it was true, the document was missing, we could not go anywhere without it. Our stomachs dropped as we tried to recall where we could have left it. Slowly it dawned that we must have left it at the Russian-Kazakh border, over 1000km of empty steppe away. We considered trying to cross the border on a photocopy, to bribe our way through, but the border we were approaching was notoriously difficult to cross, so we decided to try and get hold of the original document.
This meant returning to Beyneu, something no traveller ever wants to do. We checked into one of the less awful hotels, with depressing soviet era interior design and useless staff. We went to the local police station to try and find help, alas we were told that because the document was in another region of Kazakhstan they could not do anything, not even ring the other department. Apparently their phone only worked in Beyneu. Frustrated, we then tried to call the insurance company. Their offices were closed until Monday. This left us with a difficult choice, risk the border or spend a weekend in Beyneu. We regretfully chose the latter, and determined to make the most of our time, we went on the hunt for things to do. We discovered a great little market where Lottie purchased some jazzy trousers, and even ‘Beinu King’. But beng Kazakhstan, they didn’t do burgers, or have anything listed on their menu. Just omlette. Yum.
Come Monday morning we had befriended many of the other unfortunate residents of our hotel, many of whom worked on the gas pipelines in the desert. Luckily Oleg spoke good enough English to call the company on our behalf, and to our joy they had the document! We asked if they might send it via DHL or whatever the equivalent in Kazakhstan was. Instead they told us they were putting it in a taxi. Horrified we protested, it would never make it safely to us over 1000 km. But Oleg reassured us this was normal, and true to their word, less than 24 hours later, the V5 was with us! We paid less than €5 for this service-can you imagine the cost in the UK!?
So it was with heavy hearts and a tear in the eye (not), that we left Beyneu never to return! The road ahead of us was tough, no civilisation for over 400km, no petrol, no water, just empty desert. But we relished the prospect of the ride, returning to our thoughts of home, friends and family. We didn’t need the steppe to realise just how much we miss you all, but we did need it to help us clarify, that before we come back, we have unfinished business in the vast emptiness, oases and mountains of Asia. Wish us luck!!