Kazakh experience

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Crossing the Caspian Sea

In any roadbook, it’s written that “the trip is more important than the destination”. Crossing the Caspian Sea was one of the most symbolic experiences of our trip, revealing the truth of this expression.

While studying the itinerary, we understood going from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan by the sea won’t be easy. Our first researches about this crossing confirmed our worries…

The number of shipments is linked to the weather and the kind of goods to transport. No shipping timetable can be known in advance, plus the tickets can be hardly found… We read many stories about the myth of this trip!

We were prepared but, indeed, patience was the main key of this experience.

Upon our arrival in the city of Aktau, our objective was to know the timetable of the shipping departure as this information was hard to get. While strolling in the streets, we asked in any offices looking like a travel agency. But no luck!

Finally, the hasard did well. While trying to schedule our exploration of the valley of Boszhira, Sergueï offered to bring us to the office of the shipping agency to get more information about the next departure. Julia, the shipping agent, invited us to come back on Tuesday afternoon to buy our ferry tickets which should leave on Wednesday.

Early in the morning, after a first call to the shipping agency, we have been invited to come along at the end of the afternoon to buy the tickets. At the beginning of the conversation, we seemed to have plenty of time to reach the harbour before the departure. But at some point, we finally understood that we had a short timing. Initially, Julia suggested to us to take the road on the following day, at 8am. But she gave us more information and specified we needed to register our motorcycles with the custom officers at the port and advised to take the road immediately!

We went quickly at the hotel to pack and to pay our stay. It was 8pm when we left the parking of the hotel to reach the Kurik harbour, 80 km further at the South of Aktau.

At dusk, the colours were beautiful. We reached the village of Kurik and turned on the right. We thought our last kilometres will be on a track, but finally it was on asphalt.

It was in the dark with a heavy fog that we arrived at the harbour. We were surprised to see modern buildings in the middle of nowhere. We registered our vehicles for the next ferry with a team of international truck drivers, Christoph and Maïka – a German couple driving a UAZ van, and Yves – a French guy driving a Lada Gigouli.

The registration process was quite disorganised. At the end, we managed to cross the barriers symbolising the entry of the harbour. After filling the paperwork for going out of the territory and registering our vehicles, we shared and enjoyed a pasta dish in Ahmet’s kitchen made in a box on the side of his truck. We spent the evening on the parking with a nice team. Finally, the custom officers kindly offered us to sleep in a corridor of their office.

Around 9am the staff arrived, one by one, to take their shift at the custom office. We enjoyed our breakfast in the cafeteria of the port. But we have been interrupted by the custom officers for our vehicle inspection. We didn’t have the time to finish our cup of tea and needed to rush outside for the inspection.

No troubles for the checking, the dogs were actually more interested by playing with a plastic bottle than our vehicles!

We waited patiently until the end of the morning. We watched a first ferry leaving, full of wagons of goods. At 10am, our ferry named the “Professor Gul” arrived in the harbour. An hour later, the ferry was unloaded of the vehicles arriving from Baku. It was our turn to be on the loading deck. We waited for new wagons to be loaded in the ferry, taking a big part of lower deck.  

For this ferry crossing, we were with 5 truck drivers including Ahmet ; Maïka, Christoph and their UAZ van (@bibi.und.hilde) ; Yves, Juliette, Solann and their Gigouli car ; Mario and Gema with their bicycles (@apinonfijo) ; David, Ally and also their bicycles (@wheely_far). To complete this great team, two other Kazakh families with their cars joined. Once the vehicles parked on the deck, we went to our cabins. The furniture was rudimentary. We waited two hours, the time for our passports to be checked by two members of the army who came specially on the ferry for this occasion.

It was 6pm when the engines of the ferry started which meant 20 hours after our arrival at the port.

We started our crossing progressively by a tea with all the team before to dine in the canteen of the ferry.

At sunset, everyone gathered together on the upper deck to share a few glasses of the alcohol brought by everyone. We shared our travel stories. The members of the crew joined us. With Russian, Turkish, French, English and Spanish wording, we spent the night between the two chemneys of the ferry.

For breakfast, hard-boiled eggs in the canteen before each traveler went back to his occupations: reading, playing “dutch” (a card game), watching a serie,… Then, it was tea time before lunch. At the beginning of the afternoon, Baku was on the horizon. We were also able to see petrol platforms on the sea. We still needed to patient a few hours for our port of arrival, Alat which is 70 km further from Baku city towards South. We arrived by 4pm, local time (one hour of difference with Kazakhstan). We patiented for the gate to be open. In the meantime and as a true acrobat, David did a little show with his diabolo.

First, it was by foot that we went to the Azerbaijani customs. We gave our e-visa to get a stamp on our passports. For Emilie and I, there was a little IT issue which made the process longer for us and increased our stress.

Then, we took our motorcycles out of the ferry and took all our cases through X-rays by a carrousel like the ones in the airports. The custom officers were looking for a drone which they could seize due to the strict interdiction of drone use in the country. As Julien was the first of the team, he alerted us. We managed to hide our drone in the boot of our sidecar, just in time!

We continued all the paperwork by importing our sidecars at the next desk. We have been welcomed by a customs officer speaking English. Once this was done, he indicated the exit of the port and said we finished all the paperwork. We were surprised as we haven’t paid the crossing fees for the sidecars yet.

Arriving at the last gate before the way out of the harbour, we showed all the paperwork we were possessing. As expected, the officer indicated us that we were missing a document that  we should get from the “Kasa.” We followed their indications to find the hidden desk behind the car park of the quay. The office was implanted in an old container. There, we joined our friends met on the ferry. We didn’t understand everything about what we have to pay, to who and why. Some of the officers gave us tickets in exchange of fees paid, and others indicated other desks to go. A little mess…

We finally finished by paying the transport of the sidecars 110 USD. It was 10pm when we left the harbour with Maïka and Christoph. The Russian Gang drove the 70km to Baku, before to discover Azerbaijan.

Aktau and the peninsula of Manguistaou – 7 days – 22 metres above sea level

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After a first stormy night on the Manguistaou peninsula, we left Shetpe to go to Aktau. Outside of the city, a bit of stress. The first service stations we saw didn’t have any petrol. Finally, the fourth station had some and we managed to reach the main city of the area.

On the way, we did a stop next to a lagoon where wild horses where drinking. A herd of goats crossed in front of us and was followed by their shepherd driving his car. Ten kilometres further, we did a second stop, in the middle of the desert. Locals told us there were sacred rocks there. We walked during 5 kilometres in this wild Kazakh steppe but we didn’t find these big rocks looking like cannonballs of over a metre of diameter. The view over the valley was impressive in spite of this fail. The wildlife was also unusual: big insects looking like crickets flying above us, big lizards enjoying the sunshine on the rocky soil and even Julien and Marie saw turtles hiding in little soles on the ground. 

After this adventure in the Kazakh steppe, we arrived in Aktau at the end of the afternoon. We enjoyed a dinner with chachliks and beers before a stroll by the seaside. We crossed an industrial area and, surprisingly, arrived on a private beach. At this late time of the day, we ran the risk to enter without permission. As soon as we approached some sun umbrellas, the guard called us. But he quickly understood we were tourists and finally accepted we stay a bit. We enjoyed the sunset from the plastic pontoon. I even took the opportunity for swimming a bit in the Caspian Sea. But to be honest, the bad smell from the weeds spoiled this swimming time.

We went back to the hotel with a beautiful purple sky, between the containers and old gas pipes hung above us. 

After a quiet morning spent to update our website and social media, it was 1pm when we left our hotel to explore the city. We did a quick stop in a shopping centre to buy a matriochka (a Russian doll) and a shirt for Julien for his futur professional interview by Skype. A shopping time which gave us again the will to take care of ourselves. But we resisted to avoid fulling up our suitcases closing already hardly. 

Aktau is a seaside city, located between sea and desert. At the Soviet period, there were important changes due to the discovery of petrol in the Caspian Sea. The little mining town became a bigger modern town. Today, in the town centre, the old buildings and Soviet monuments were between the new buildings with large windows. Walking in the street, we discovered, here as well, a massive monument of the Wold War II victory. But also its lighthouse, its public beach and its riviera newly open. At the end of the afternoon we had a great kiwi ice-cream, which gave us a foretaste of Italia. 

The next day, we took contact with Sergeï, a guide of the peninsula Manguistaou. We hoped he could help us to go to the Boszhira desert. From our researches, the tracks are in bad condition and the heavy heat won’t be compatible with our old style air cooling engine. This is is why we took the decision to call a guide with his 4WD to discover this treasure of the peninsula. 

Just before to met our man, we ate quickly some samsas (Kazakhstan Samosas) and kutab (pancakes with fresh herbs). We had a picnic in the shade of the trees. Like in the whole city, thousands of butterflies were flying around us.

Our meeting with Sergeï was at the foot of the big wheel setup in the main park of the city-centre. We exposed him our project to visit the Boszhira valley before to take the ferry to join Baku in Azerbaijan. After an hour spent with this Kazakh Indiana Jones around 40 with a grizzled beard and a shirt with pockets. For the moment, we were drawing a blank. Neither of him or his contacts were available to guide us for two days from tomorrow. A few minutes later, his perseverance won as he had a positive answer from his friend Cola who will accompanied us for this expedition. 

The next day, we met Cola on the parking of our hotel. To go to Boszhira, we passed by the town of Janaozën. We passed by the lower road of the world (the InReach tracker displayed – 119 metres under the sea level). In the car, the silence, Cola didn’t speak English and our Kazakh-Russian were still not great.  Passed the stopover town, the road became narrower but the asphalt was still good. We were asking ourselves why we didn’t took the side-cars… 30 kilometres later, we tuned on the left on the first track of the day. However, Cola didn’t reduce its speed. At the first viewpoint, we joined another vehicle, the one of his friend Vlad. Also guide, he was with a Kazakh-Danish couple.

The next stop will be at the checkpoint of the Rally of Kazakhstan which ended on the previous day. This point was over the valley of Boszhira and these famous “fangs of the plateau of Ousthyurt”. We picnicked together under a sheet stretched between both 4×4, overlooking these two summits of a 200-metre height. A few millions of years ago, this wide valley, white like snow, deserted by any trees, lakes or rivers, was submerged by the Thetys ocean. To proof this story Vlad showed his necklace: a shark teeth found in the middle of this desert. 

We went back to the path and followed the dust made by Vlad’s 4×4 to reach an impressive canyon. The vehicles crossed many obstacles to reach this new rock. Finally, we made the good choice of not using the sidecars to come here! During an hour, we climbed up this rock with a blazing sun. A the top, the view was breathtaking over the whole valley. 

Once at the bottom of this cliff, without Vlad and our Kazakh-Danish friends who were back on the road to Aktau, we set up our camp at the end of the afternoon. Cola parked the 4×4 in a rift dug by the ocean. Protected by the wind, we pitched up the tents in this beautiful scenery. Behind us, Cola was cooking dinner on his camping stove. On the menu: dried fruits, pasta, potatoes and meat. Then, we climbed up a summit to watch the sunset. While we were going down, we saw the lightening from a storm further in the valley. As there was no pollution in the sky, it was the perfect opportunity for taking photos of the stars. Before to slide in our sleeping bags, there was a last difficulty: fighting against the moths attracted by our headlights and a huge yellow spider next to our tents. 

After a good sleeping night in the desert, the alarm rung at 5am. We went out of our sleeping bags to take place in this beautiful scenery. Waiting, patiently and quietly before the local wildlife woke up, was magical. The first rays of the sunshine appeared on the two impressive “fangs” piercing the valley. The colours were beautiful with purple nuances. 

Back to the camp, we took our breakfast with Cola offering us a local porridge before to go back on the road towards Aktau. The 4×4 was going straight on the flat desert. This morning, there was surprisingly no asperities. We reached quickly the “Sherkala Mountain” also named the “mountain with the pink line”. Its shape looked like a huge yurt in the middle of this wide deserted plaine. After some photos, we jumped in the car and got around the mountain by East, before to go back on our steps. On this kind of surface without any vegetation, all the traces were similar. Cola didn’t seem to find the ones bringing us back to Aktau. Unable to help, we watched him hesitating on the traces to follow and he finally went out of this wide plain by a sandy hill to reach the plateau. On the top of this hill, two French with bicycles stopped us. They were riding in the desert for 3 days, going from Senek to the Boszhira valley. But at this point of their expedition, they didn’t have more than 1,5 litres of water per person to finish their last day on paths and to reach the next village. To compare, we drank over 8 litres of water per person on a day in this desert, in spite of exploring it by car. To help them, Cola offered them to put the bicycles on the roof and to go with us in the car, up to the next village. 

On the way, we did a short break to watch a turtle crossing the path. Cola noticed a flat rear tyre. We reached Senek by regular stop to inflate the tyre. While this day was already eventful, Cola stopped on the side of the road, just a few kilometres before Aktau. He helped a car on the emergency lane and towed it up to the entry of the city. Cola was a true superhero of the desert!

The following fay, we enjoyed our breakfast in the hotel. After a few days spent here, we knew perfectly the menu: eggs were delicious and the crepes reminded us Brittany. At this time of the day, we didn’t know yet that it will be our last breakfast here. On the same day, we learned we needed to reach quickly the port of Kuryk to cross the sea towards Azerbaijan. 

Where to eat? 

Craft Burger
Карымсакова 3а, Atyrau

A place with a young and warm athmosphere, just a few metres from the beach. We have been welcomed with a lot of kindness to enjoy delicious burgers. 

Restaurant “Makcim”

In front of our hotel, the Zeruik, we got used to eat in this family canteen. Nothing fancy, a bit outside of the town-centre, but we came many times to enjoy their great Cesar salad and their delicious chachlik on their shady terrace.

Uralsk – 7 days – 35 metres above sea level

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We arrived in Kazakstan by the border post of Ilek. The checking was easy. On the Russian side, they were happy to say a couple of French words. The customs officer indicated us to go through without checking our luggages. Even the bag of bulk tea offered by Ivan, looking like illegal herbs, passed the check point.

Once on the other side of the bridge to reach the Kazakh border, same thing. Our unusual vehicles intrigued the custom officers and the control was not stricter. In less than an hour, we did the paperwork and entered in Kazakhstan.

The closest city was about 150 km away. The road was sometimes unpaved, sometimes paved, but often with massive potholes. From the first kilometres the landscape changed. The Russian green fields and bushes have been replaced by plains blowed by the wind, without trees or greenness. The heat was back, the motorcycle clothing became heavier and unbreathable. 

At our arrival in Uralsk, we collected the engine oil reserved by the Night wolfs for us in a Motul shop.

The “Gengis Khan” motorclub has been alerted of our arrival. Two of their bikers arrived  at the shop for meeting us and helping us. After a false depart as Julien lost his phone but found it in the sand next to the shop (Thanks Cедой), the two bikers negotiated a good hotel for us, at a good price with parking within the building (thanks to their good negotiations) and in the city-centre.

Our afternoon was dedicated to research an insurance for driving legally in the country. We found one with Nomad Assurance. Warmly welcomed in their office with a glass of peach juice, we signed a contract with them allowing us to drive 15 days, the time to reach the Caspian Sea.

Our second Kazakh day started with a giant breakfast offered by the hotel. On the table, there were eggs, sausages, pastries… At the same time, we started chatting with a man from Almaty. During its discussion we were bluffed by his knowledge in geography. He was able to compare, with a great precision, the surface in square metres of various countries.

The day continued with Alex and Sabit, our two friends from the motorcycle club. With them, we discovered the city and its history. As the history of the country, it is linked to the Khan dynasty. Gengis Khan, symbol of the Mongolian invasion on the Central Asia lands, is a hero here. The city of Uralsk was built at the junction of the Ural and Changan rivers. Closer to Moscow than Astana, the Kazakh capital, it explained the atmosphere of the city. In the town-centre of Uralsk, it is possible to see beautiful buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, with wooden walls, plus buildings from the same period with a Mediterranean style. Both cohabit with the marks of the Soviet architecture. About the buildings which were worth to be seen, they were the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour built from 1591 and finished 300 years after ; and the impressive memorial of the World War II with its column piecing the sky. Again, Soviet architecture is not about cosiness and flowers, but  about massiveness and greatness.

After this break in Uralsk, we took the road in direction of South, to reach the city of Inderbor. No difficulties on the road, no hills and a correct asphalt. We followed this straight line across the steppe with almost “closed” eyes. The only surprising thing was the several herds of cows and horses. On the road, we saw many people welcoming us with horn blasts, even policemen were waving to us on the side of the road.  It was like on the Colombian road.

We arrived mid-afternoon in the Inderbor city. The streets were empty and the asphalt was in vey bad conditions this time. We looked for something to eat. But the city was deserted and the restaurants were closed. As it was currently the Ramadan, it was hard to find a place open at 3pm. Finally, we managed to order a salad with stuffed peppers and a beer in a café. Back in the streets of the city, the life was back too. Kids were playing with balls and bicycles while adults were doing the usual daily tasks: food shopping, repairing a wall, doing deliveries with their cart… In this city, the face shapes of the people we met have now changed. Their features were more similar to the ones from Central Asia rather than to Russia. The houses have also changed. Previously made of wood or concrete blocks with an angled roof, there were here made of soil with  a flat roof.

We followed the advice of Sabit met in Uralsk. We left Inderbor and reached Atyrau by a small secondary road which was actually in better conditions than the main road. On this new straight line, there was a herd of camels, living in total freedom. Along the road, we saw many of them, sometimes they crossed the road just in front of us. 

A hundred of kilometres before Atyrau, we left again the main road to discover the remains of the ancient medieval city of Sarayshyk. In the past, this city was a main axis for trades, on the Silk Route. But at this historic place, we saw only a little museum and three stones, the last remains of this ancient city.  

We arrived at the end of the afternoon in the oil-producing city of Atyrau, along the Ural river. We stayed in a youth hostel where we have been welcomed very warmly. To avoid the issue we had previously, we asked where we could find a place to lunch at this late time of the day. The kind family offered to cook a meal for us. On the menu, a hearty dish with a delicious fish served with pasta and a Kazakh salad.

We enjoyed the end of the afternoon to stroll along the river and to discover the city. Here, like in the other Kazakh cities we crossed, there were a mix of cultures. For example, a Mosque and an Orthodox Church were separated of only a few hundred metres. 

On the following day, we continued our journey towards Kulsary, 200 kilometres further. The road was in good conditions. Many horn blasts when people saw us and the scenery stayed pretty flat. After some kilometres, we saw salty lagoons offering nice colours in the desert. The free animals continued to share the road with us. In the wide fields, the horses gathered together to protect themselves from the strong wind. 

Arrived in Kulsary, we lunched in a “globetrotter” café. We met two Russian bikers who just finished their Kazakh trip. After chatting a bit about the tips and must places to visit, they recommended us a “biker” hotel at the entry of the city. We looked for this place of the “Uncle Lesha”. After going back and forth during 10 minutes, we didn’t find him. The two other hotels we saw were very expensive. We looked on the iOverlander app to find another option but, finally, we discovered the hotel of Lesha was actually in the next city, Beyneu, which was 200 kilometres further. We reached the city at 9pm and met the famous Lesha, a true character who received us like VIP guests in his home.

After Beyneu, the first 100 kilometres were similar to the previous days. But after a Kazakh salad for lunch, the first hills appeared. After a little hill, we saw our first canyon. The road was going between the chalky cliffs, with purple and white colours, specific features of the Mangystau peninsula we just entered.

It was raining from ten days now. We were not able to reach the Tuzbair lake as planned. The sat nav indicated its position at less than 10 kilometres from us, but we managed to do only 3. Indeed, the road was too muddy and slippery due to the rain. By looking the sky, we understood the storm was coming and we didn’t have much time left to arrive in Shetpe, the next city to find a roof to shelter.

During all the night, it was heavily raining. Next step: Aktau!

Where to eat?

Toykhana Na Malibu
улица Пугачева 38, Oural

A traditional address on the riverside of Ural, famous for big feasts with all the family or for dining with a few friends. For small groups, it’s possible to share the dinner in a little room, sat cross-legged around a coffee table. On the menus, there are the Kazakh traditional dishes. There, we enjoyed a delicious Beshbarmak, a meat dish with boiled horse meat. The name of this dish means “5 fingers” as this dish needs to be eaten with hands. 

Where to sleep ?

Hostel Keruen
Карымсакова 3а, Atyrau

A youth hostel without anything fancy by with nice dormitories including wooden bunk beds and a warm welcoming. A hearty breakfast is the cherry on the cake! 

Uncle Lesha

This address is not a hotel but a good place for the two or three-wheel travellers willing to meet people. Between Atyrau and Aktau, Lesha is a character who deserves to stop. Plus, his workshop can be very handy for repairing your vehicle.