ABR, author and optimistic cynic Graham Field is on the trip of a lifetime to Mongolia. Trouble is he’s got a lot to contend with on the way. We join him in Astrakhan, Russia, on the border with Kazakhstan, where all’s not what it seems…
I’m woken by two stray dogs outside my tent. I instinctively sit up and growl at them and they run off. Hmm, would seem I’m in need of human company; I’m turning into Dr Dolittle. It’s a nice easy day ahead: 250 miles to Astrakhan, then I’ll take a day off before crossing into Kazakhstan.
As I ride, the landscape quickly changes in to flat, arable farmland. I definitely picked the right place to stop for the night. Even if I had found somewhere to pitch a tent here last night, I wouldn’t have been hidden, and it clearly rained a lot heavier here than it did where I stayed. But that was yesterday’s luck. The crops have all been harvested, fields ploughed. I wonder what the farmers do now. It’s only the beginning of July.
Road less travelled
The sporadic signposting had got the better of me again and somehow I’d managed to leave the main road. This was pointed out to me at today’s first check point, but they showed me an alternative route on my map. No worries, I can go up the side of the Volga Delta, which is as broad as it is long. Those lazy farmers certainly haven’t bothered to irrigate this land in their spare time. It’s hot, barren, deserted plains. I have a slight feeling of recollection in my head, but trying to recall adequate information is futile. If I could find some shade, I’d stop and check my book. There is no shade, no trees, nothing, but I’m getting a niggling feeling so I stop anyway.
The Lonely Planet can’t be accused of overrating this area. Well, this ought to keep the backpackers away; in a boxed section of my book I read snippets like: An area of political unrest, like walking in a minefield, pleasant until you take the wrong step… weekly reports of shootings, bombings and kidnappings, particularly of foreigners, who fetch a higher price. Oh great, and all I have to protect me is a throttle, an offensive smell and phone reception. I decide to use one of my weapons immediately. I text a friend and tell him where I am, where I’m going and that I will be safe in two hours when I will definitely text again.
Everywhere is deserted; petrol stations are abandoned, and have been for some time, the hoses ripped from the pumps. What houses there are, are either boarded up or in ruins. It’s a little scary. The few vehicles I see have number plates from places like North Ossetia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, names I know from news reports and not the holiday programmes.
Those smiling officials at the checkpoint had different uniforms on. Were they leading me astray on purpose? There are yellow signs on the side of the road. What do they say? A warning? Danger signs? Probably best I can’t read them. I haven’t seen yellow signs before. I could have turned round. I’m not sure why I didn’t. Perhaps I didn’t want to lose face back at the checkpoint. No other reason comes to mind. If you’re going to go through hell, it’s probably best to keep going. I dare not trust any more ‘officials’ but if I keep riding when I’m being waved at to stop will I be shot in the back? If I do stop, will I be mugged or worse?
In the heat-haze ahead, two trucks are stopped on either side of the road. I watch a single figure walk across the road. An ambush? I pass at full speed; no wire had been strung across the road at neck height. I’m suspicious of everything now. On top of all this heat and fear the sky is full of locusts or crickets, and they splat big yellow puss over my screen, which I cower behind, and hit like hailstones on my legs. I find a petrol station. It stands alone but it is operational and open.
There are several men standing round their parked cars excitedly studying a map. Are they discussing no-go areas? I keep my helmet on. If I’m thinking this is disguising my nationality I’ve not considered my bike with its British plate and Union Jack sticker. In my alarmed state I miscalculate the amount of petrol I need, and don’t get a full tank (You pay first for the amount of fuel you require). I have enough now to get out at full throttle, which isn’t much more than 70mph.
I long for my Triumph for the first time this trip, which could get me out of here at 140mph. I’m overtaken by a tinted-window Mercedes with no plates or form of identification.
I reach the T-junction and I’m half way. A few huts are all that depict the village. I hurtle north. I’m so thirsty but dare not stop to drink. There is nothing around, just hot parched land. Why would people fight over land like this? Or perhaps the fighting left the once-fertile land this way. With a second’s warning the dots ahead become another storm of locusts and they hit like golf balls on my perfectly positioned windshield. The impact is loud and I feel the spray of their yellow innards touching my dry, cracking lips, exposed through an open visor.
Even if I dared to stop, I could not capture this on a photograph. To anyone who wasn’t here it’s just barren desert. But in this moment, in this environment, knowing what I’ve read, paranoid of every vehicle, and having seen evidence of once-inhabited places, there is doubtlessly trouble here. I’m not sure how much, how serious and how recent, but it looks like a warzone to me.
Rough with the smooth
When I come to the river, and the checkpoint, I’m sure my relief is evident. Yes, I was scared, but in fairness I was informed and scared, not just cowardly. I’m back in stable Russia. I’m greeted with a gold-toothed smile. Is he saying congratulations you are safe? No, the official has some bad news. The road is no more; I have to take a different route. I will now be taking the third side of a rectangle, a total of an extra 186 miles. It’s so hot. I stop in the shade of an abandoned petrol station’s canopy. Something catches my eye. Is that a big bird nesting in the top of the building or is someone looking out at me? I take bread and sausage out of my hot panniers. I eat, rehydrate, and feed a stray dog. Then text my friend, I’m still alive and safe.
I picture his Saturday morning routine of fresh orange juice on the patio, Planet Rock on the radio, the bright green of his postage stamp lawn surrounded by the privacy of woven fence panels. Well I’m not bored any more. Careful what you wish for. I wonder if he has any comprehension of what I just rode through. Do I for that matter? Was my fear justified? Was his complacency? Okay, deep breath let’s get this over with. I ride a few more miles and then the road just ends. What the hell? It turns to not just dirt but deep ruts and sand as far as I can see. I can’t ride this, it must be wrong.
I go back to the tarmac, but the only other choice is to go into a village, so I go back to the dirt track. My compass says west, I want north or at least north-west. It’s not a matter of how many times I nearly drop the bike, it’s constant. I’m not riding, I’m balancing. It’s a continual struggle to keep it upright. I can’t do this, I turn back again. I’ve been riding eight hours in extreme heat now.
There’s no one around and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. I usually see some kids come running out to see the source of the thumping single-cylinder exhaust note. There is a fisherman by a small stagnant pond. I show him my map and he points to the village. I ride round the dusty tracks of the abandoned mud and tile houses and find hard road. There is a broken-down truck with its bonnet up; the driver is pouring water into a steaming radiator. I can’t get enough confirmation at this point and he’s likely to be more informed than the fisherman. He indicates this is the right road but that it will turn to dirt.
It turns out he’s right but at least it’s level dirt. I reduce my tyre pressures and it’s not too bad at all. I take it easy. It takes a lot of concentration and I’m already mentally exhausted from today’s events. Eventually the surface turns to tarmac again, and unexpectedly, the bike coughs. I’ve used up my tank of panic pumped-petrol and I only have about ten miles on reserve. I’ve been doing 30mph and third gear, yeah that makes sense.
I find a small village and a Chinese-looking person wandering about. I point at my tank, ‘I need petrol’ and he points at a container, ‘No, mate, I don’t want to ship it home,’ but sure enough inside the 20ft container is a petrol pump, and across from it is a hut with a mirror window. A grumpy Mongolian woman with gold teeth sits inside. I can picture her now, but if the window was mirrored and she didn’t smile, how do I know what her or her teeth looked like? I do recall she didn’t seem nearly as pleased that I was there as I was to be there.
It’s a Mongolian village; it’s amazing. I could take some photos of my bike in front of these people and go to the beach for three months. Just tell everyone I made it to Mongolia. There is a completely different vibe here and I like it. I stop at a little shop for water. It feels fine to leave the bike unattended as I go into the shop. People still stare but it’s not threatening or intrusive; it’s gentle and inquisitive. The Buddhist nature. I really love the adventure of this wild open space. I have a full tank and supplies again. The discomfort of today’s distance is of minor concern with so many distractions and unknown, new experiences. This is why I came. It just took 4,000 miles to get to it.
I get some brief cloud cover before the over-exposed plains ahead, and then I’m back on the right road – the one I accidentally split from this morning. I still have over 120 miles to go. That was one hell of a diversion. I see a signpost in English saying Moscow is 1,050 miles away, but more importantly, Atyrau is mentioned, my first evidence of Kazakhstan. Now that’s really exciting.
So finally, after over 400 miles, I get to Astrakhan. It’s taken me twelve hours; it should have been five hours and 250 miles, but what an adventure. I can’t find a hotel, I’m so hot, so tired. I ride round and round the town. This is when accidents happen. After an hour of stop-start traffic lights and false hope, I find one; it’s expensive, but justifiably so.
The woman opens the big metal gates for me to bring my bike in, but she can’t lock them again. I help her line them up, and she slides the metal bolt into my thumb with full force. It bursts and bleeds instantly. That entire road, all these dangers and it’s the hotel that breaks my skin. She rushes me to a sink, puts iodine on the gaping wound and puts on a bandage. It’s so big it looks like a cartoon throbbing thumb. It almost hurts as much as I made out it did.
I take a shower, to wash away a day of fear, mystery and excitement while she cooks me a dinner made of pork and guilt and brings it to my room. Those are the days that stay with you, the tales they want to hear when you get home. But I could never make them really understand. It’s personal; it’s why I’m here.
I racked up 25 years of motorbikes and travelling before I realised I could put the two together. If nothing else, progressing from backpack to bicycle to motorbike has meant I’ve learnt a few lessons along the way.
I like to go away just long enough so that coming back is a joy. My definition of ‘Marta’ is ‘not having a bacon sandwich,’ because everyone wants a bacon sandwich really, deep down inside. The smell, the taste; it’s a universal craving that’s experienced by Rabbis and vegetarians even, probably. And the best ones I’ve ever tasted come out of my own kitchen.
When palm trees or snowy mountains, extravagant architecture and ancient history lose their wow-factor, it’s time to go home for a bacon sandwich, which I enjoy with greater world knowledge and a new appreciation for the simple things, until once again, the freedom of the road beckons with renewed enthusiasm. That’s when targets and dates are reached and work clothes are put away and the passport is taken out. I make a living, enough to do what I want to and not so much I don’t appreciate the things I have. Work to live; not live to work, that’s my motto.
Best you can hope for is to find a lifestyle that satisfies, and realise you’re living it. It’s a constant challenge. We all yearn for it, look for it. Somewhere where ambition and contentment overlap is that illusive happy medium. I look on the road, and sometimes I find it, just for a little while.
The bike Kawasaki KLR 650 (1996)
I rode to Mongolia, alone, on a bike which I bought from eBay for £800. I was the only bidder, because it was listed in the wrong category.
‘You got a lot of bike there for £800,’ said the grumpy owner when I went to pick it up. I didn’t tell him of his faux pas or that I actually bid over £1,000. He set the reserve price; I reserved the right to not feel guilty.
My bike was not love at first ride but, just like the best albums, the ones that don’t grab you straight away end up being the ones you play for the rest of your life. This ‘96 KLR 650 doesn’t pull effortless wheelies, but those aren’t really a necessity for a long overland trip. It doesn’t produce adrenalin like my Ducati did, and it doesn’t have the triple-figure cruising speed of my triple- cylinder Triumph. That, I suppose, is why I bought it. I needed something that wasn’t like the others, to do something the others couldn’t do. It does have a lovely exhaust note though, thanks to the aftermarket pipe: just the right side of obnoxious. Well, it is from where I’m sitting anyway.
The KLR is still my only road-legal bike. It needs some TLC, but it sailed through a recent post-Mongolia MOT without so much as a clean.
Astrakhan: the facts
What? Astrakhan is a region of Southern Russia. Bedsides the main city of Astrakhan, the region comprises five towns, 11 villages, and over 400 smaller, rural settlements.
Where? The city of Astrakhan is located on the west bank of the Volga River, which runs in to the Caspian Sea. Astrakhan is part of the Southern Federal District of Russia and is bordered by the Republic of Kazakhstan to the east, and by sea it borders Azerbaijan Republic, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Turkmenistan to the south.
Who? The infamous Golden Horde controlled this area in the 13th century and founded the city of Kazan on the west bank of the Volga River. After Kazan fell to Ivan the Terrible, however, his troops took over the entire Volga River region, destroying the original Tatar city. In 1558, Russian troops founded the modern city of Astrakhan and built the kremlin (pictured below) on the east bank of the river, which can still be seen today.
Why? The Astrakhan region offers challenging riding, vast open wilderness, and if you’re big on fishing and hunting, this is the place to be. Astrakhan City is a busy trading port boasting impressive architecture and lively markets.
When? Seasonally, Astrakhan is much like the UK – warm April-September; cold October-March – but expect greater extremes of temperature. Figures have been recorded in the 30s during peak summer months, although by Russian standards, Astrakhan usually has fairly mild winters.
How? Graham took the long route to Astrakhan, riding through Germany, Sweden, Ukraine, and in to Russia, but Astrakhan Airport (ASF), located in the city centre, is another route to the region. Return flights to Astrakhan are available from London Heathrow, London City, London Gatwick, Manchester, and Aberdeen from upwards of £550.
In terms of transporting your own motorcycle, international shipping company James Cargo Services Ltd advises against sending it directly into Russia or Turkey and instead recommends riding across the borders. The company can transport a BMW R 1200 GS to Sofia, Bulgaria for £795+VAT or airfreighted directly into Tbilisi for £1,725. For more, see www.jamescargo.com.
Pack your panniers!
ABR Mike Stevens, retail director of Costwold Outoor, has a BMW R 1150 GS; here are his Russian riding essentials
Lakes, mountains and wide-open plains, this part of Southern Russia has it all. With boiling-hot summers and temperatures plummeting in the winter, it’s an environment to be taken seriously.
Sunblock: Lifesystems sun protection range, from £7.50 On any unsupported summer wilderness trip, a good sunblock is an essential consideration. Lifesystems is specifically formulated for use by active folk in mountain regions.
Hydration: The Camelbak Classic, £45 Long days riding in the mountains can easily lead to dehydration if you don’t watch your fluid intake. This pack has a 2-litre fluid capacity, is big enough to store a few essentials and is designed to be small and light.
Tent: Vango Banshee 200, £120This tent has a small pack-size and weighs in at a smidge over 2kg, but it’s easily big enough for a single rider and their kit. The large side entrance and decent-sized porch are ideal ideal for cooking or easy access when you’re kitted up.
Sleeping bag: The Deuter Travel Lite 300, £70Even in the summer, the mountain regions can get chilly over-night. This bag is small enough not to fill the panniers but has a lower comfort limit of -2oC, so should be flexible enough for this trip.
Stove: MSR Whisperlite International, £100 Camping shops are a rare find here, so your best bet is a mulit-fuel stove. This stove is a classic for good reason; it’s easy to use, does the job in all conditions, but most of all, it just works! Hundreds of mountaineers, campers and adventurers can’t be wrong.
Cook set: The MSR Titanium Kettle, £50 One-pot cooking is the way forward, so make sure the pot you pick is a good one! This kettle is versatile enough to be used as a pot, mug or bowl. Cook a stew of locally caught fish, or squeeze in a Wayfarer ready meal.
Luxury item: Lifeventure Wide Mouth Flask, £20Make a brew in the morning and keep topped up with tea during the day, or make use of the wide mouth to carry chunky soups or add ice to drinks. It even comes with a second mug, to share a cuppa with whoever you meet on the road.
The full story of Graham’s incredible solo ride from the UK to Mongolia, In Search of Greener Grass, is published by Troubador and available from www.troubador.co.uk priced £12.99