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10.05.09 07:45 Age: 9 yrs

On the road and into the steppe

By: Roger and Megan

After a few postponements and glitches, we spend our first few nights out on the road

Our new departure date of May 3 had been confirmed, and a bike crew from Karaganda had been organised to escort us out from 8 am that morning. So, in order to make this deadline, we'd planned to wake at 6 am to do the final packing and loading. But because of all our aggregated late nights over the past couple of days, both of us were feeling rather tired in the morning, and after waking at 6 am with the alarm, we both somehow managed to forget to actually get up until about 7.30 am.

On top of this, it had started to snow in Astana, so the day was already not running smoothly (our cold weather gear was packed at the bottom of the bags). The snowfall continued through the morning and come 8 am... 9 am... 10 am there were still no Karaganda bikers in sight, and we conceded that they probably weren't going to show up. In some regards this was a relief, as again we still had a lot more to do to finish off before our departure. And to make matters worse, Roger's headcold had really taken hold and was making it very difficult to do all the bending over and lifting and maneouvering required to load up the Quike. In fact, seeing the situation and our tired and sickly state, Arsen's parents went so far as to ban us from leaving the house! Which was probably a good idea. So yet again we decided to postpone our departure another day, till the 4th.

On Monday morning (the 4th) we were finally (almost) ready to leave - this was to be the day at last! We'd managed to cull another 30 kg of gear, which we would be sending to Bishkek (in Kyrgyz republic) in October for our winter phase (hopefully by then we have rid ourselves of our auxiliary gear, since at the moment the load is already stacked it up past Roger's chin level, when standing!). We had aimed to depart at 9am, so after an early breakfast we said our goodbyes and set about doing the final loading onto the Quike. However, after what seemed about 30 min of work, it was suddenly 12:30 pm! Boy had time flown! Our 9 am departure estimate was subsequently re-adjusted to 3 pm.

This time, we actually held to our word, and rolled out of the driveway at 2.30 pm. On our way out, Arsen's mother gave us some Uyghur Naan bread for our travels. This particular type of bread is a round, hard inch-think disc. It is dried in order for it to keep for a very long time, even years. Traditionally, this bread is given to travellers upon departure, and they carry it with them and share it with the donors upon their return. We're not sure we'll be returning to Astana, but the bread is safely stored away in our luggage now, and perhaps we'll share it with our families when we arrive back in Australia.

The ride out of Astana went without further mishap and it seemed that finally the technical issues had all been ironed out. Despite the headwind, we were hopeful that we would reach Korgalzhin the next day, as we believed it to be only 70 km from Astana. However, after riding for about 20 km, we saw a sign saying "Korgalzhin 115 km", so we had obviously gotten our information wrong! But it wasn't a disaster as we'd packed more than enough water, fuel, and food to last us the next five days.

At about this time, we exited the adminitrative border of Astana and the orchards opened up to open steppe. As it was already after 5.30 pm, and we'd had some pretty late nights, we decided to call it a day and camp on the steppe. As we were setting up camp, a horseman and his herd passed by about 300 m from the tent, but he didn't seem to notice us and so we figured it'd be OK for us to just camp anywhere. After that, we had a quick dinner(involving some very nice traditional dried smoked cheese, very tough, chewy, salty, and stringy, but keeps for ages!), then straight to bed, for some well earned catch-up sleep, of which we were months in debt.

After about 12 h of sleep we finally emerged from the tent on Tuesday morning. We cooked a big pot of porridge with dried fruit, and while we were eating this another herdsman herded his horses to within about 200 m of our tent. Upon seeing us, he started riding over toward us. So we started walking toward him too, and offered him some Kazakh fried doughballs that Arsen had bestowed upon us for our travels. He greeted us with a big smile and we began a long conversation discussing a range of topics, from nationalities and cheeses, to Jackie Chan and George W. Bush, to the weather and animals, all using only broken Russian, a point-it picture book, and a pen and paper. We were told that his name is Quantock, and he has 5 children, and one of his sons was doing compulsory military service. After a while he decided he'd better get back to his horses, and left us to our porridge. However, by then it was after noon, and our plans to clock up a few more km's were slipping away for the day. So we decided to just take it easy for another day and rest some more, then move along the next day.

Later that evening, a full 4wd pulled up next to our tent and a man appeared that Megan recognised to be Quantock, minus the big fur hat, winter jacket and felt boots. However, Roger was a bit behind and was desperately trying to tell this man that we had previously spoken to a herdsman named "Quantock", but finally after a few laughs we all worked it out. We decided to visit Quantock later that evening so began riding out across the step to approximately where he pointed out his dom (house). However after riding for a few minutes we soon had a flat rear tyre. As we were in the process of trying to assess it and bring the Quike back to our campsite, two Uzbek men (one of whom had a full set of gold teeth and grandpa slippers) stumbled upon us, asking us to come visit them for chai (tea). After returning the quike to our campsite, we then set out on the long walk across the open steppe to go find them in the village (again, we didn't know precisely where). But once inside the village they started waving madly at us so it was quite easy to locate them in the end. They brought out some dinner for us, a lovely smelling hot pot casserole and some bread. Trying to learn and make friendly conversation, we soon discovered after a few bites that it was horse intestine we were eating. Well that was a new experience for both of us!

The next day we identified the cause of the flat tyre (not a puncture, just a loose valve head that was tightened and easily fixed) and decided that we would have a full day riding, but this plan was again hindered by our failure to depart before midday. And then, about 5 min out from camp we realised that we had lost the gearshift button on one of the Schlumpf bottom brackets so had to do an emergency replacement (thanks for the spares Florian! And yes, we tightened them properly this time :) ). We clocked up about 40 km that day, so we were gradually bulding up to proper cycle touring distances.

The next day (Thursday) we were hoping to finally reach Korgalzhin, still some 70km away. With a light tail wind for the first part, this was made a bit easier, but by afternoon this had swung around to be a moderate cross/headwind. As Quantock had advised us, 9 days out of 10 on the steppe, the wind howls a gale, so it wasn't much of a surprise that it had picked up again.

At about 2.30 we stopped for a late lunch at a bus shelter near a town. As we were bringing out our bread, oil and salt to eat, three men approached us and invited us to the powerlines management shed (where they worked) for some chai. This sounded pretty good to us so in we went only to find it was not only chai they were offering us, but also lollies, biscuits, chess, potatoes, and somewhere to nap! But we only had time for the chai and biscuits, and gave them little koalas and some photos in return.

That evening, we finally reached Korgalzhin around 7:30, we were aiming to ride a few km out of town before setting up camp on the steppe again. However, upon passing the mosque we were beckoned by a lady to follow her to her house. We were a bit worried but followed her through the backstreets and lanes nonetheless. But that story turned into a long one, so you'll have to wait until next update to find out what happened there!

At the moment, we are still pretty much still travelling to the start of our expedition, so for us it hasn't really started yet (we're still in transit to the start location), but the adventures and stories sure have!


[posted 10/5/09 by TK]