Lucas Romriell - Russia, Central Asia, Lower Caucuses, Turkey, and Eastern Europe on a Ural Sidecar
In July 2004 I set out from Moscow on an attempt to cross Russia, most of Central Asia, the lower Caucuses, Turkey and Eastern Europe on an Ural sidecar rig. Like the ill-fated Appolo-13 mission to the moon, the journey was an unmitigated disaster, but a great adventure. By the time it was over, I had almost been shot by the Kazak police, shaken down for countless bribes, nearly run over by Kamaz trucks, nearly murdered by a crazed Kazak drunk outside a gas station and spent nearly a month in Bishkek trying to bring a dying opposed-twin engine back to life.
This is how it happened.
Ural 13, A tragedy in three parts
What not to do Most of my Russian friends warned me against the dangers of buying a new Ural motorcycle. They all knew better than to buy a new Russian vehicle. I refused to believe them. I was a unique individual. I had lived in Russia for almost five years, knew a thing or two about motorcycles and was determined to cross Central Asia and the lower Caucuses on this unusual and somewhat antiquated means of transportation. Nothing was going to stop me. Not even the ridiculous $3,000 price tag on a new Ural off the showroom floor.
Four months later I was squatting in the dirt in Kazakhstan with a group of welders, trying desperately to rescue the Uralâ€™s dying opposed-twin and cursing my rotten luck. I bought Ural Tourist off the showroom floor at Otchestevenaya Mototekhnika in Moscow. As a general rule, Moscow dealers donâ€™t carry Urals with sidecars on the showroom floor except in very rare cases. â€œThey are too expensive,â€ one of the dealers at ASTA Motors in Moscow told me. I was lucky to find one, I thought. Extremely lucky. Originally I had ordered the military version of the Ural the â€˜Gear Up,â€™ but the staff at Ural was incapable of fulfilling the order in time. In fact, actually convincing the dealer that I seriously wanted to buy the bike and send the order through took three visits. I placed the order in March and expected it in May. Normally it takes a month, but due to the Russian May holidays and a large order from Iraq, I was told there would be a delay.
In June I began to grow desperate as my original plan was to begin the journey in July. I called the dealer and asked if he had any other options. Sure, he said, thereâ€™s an Ural Tourist in the warehouse. It had been sitting there for nearly a month, but Nikolai, the owner never bothered to mention it. Why it never occurred to him to suggest as an alternative earlier Iâ€™ll never know. He stood to gain from selling his warehouse stock, yet he didnâ€™t mention it until my fifth or fourth call. He was a nice guy, but very much a product of the Soviet Union. He had a pot belly, big beard and large glasses.
I remember him telling two of his clients one day â€œFor me the Soviet Union went all the way from Moscow to Vietnam.â€ Heâ€™d done well for himself since the countryâ€™s collapse by opening his own business, but he couldnâ€™t get past that get-it-yourself-comrade customer service attitude pervasive throughout the former USSR. As for the delay with the â€˜Gear Up,â€™ the people at the factory in Irbit told me over the phone that they didn t have the right color paint to complete my order. I had requested kaki. I told them I would take whatever color they had, but the woman on the phone just mumbled another excuse.
When I finally got my hands on the Tourist, I was a happy man. It was beautiful. The tank and sidecar were turquoise with cream stripes and there was just a touch of chrome over the fenders and headlight. It also had a windshield over the chair and luggage rack over the spare wheel. Sadly, the Ural-13 mission would never make it far enough for me to use the spare. The new Urals are more classic than a â€˜classic.â€™ The company hasnâ€™t made much progress in the way of engineering improvements, but the new Urals are more attractive than they used to be. While most of the Soviet-era bikes were pretty stodgy with few paint schemes and little or no chrome, the company has tried to revamp the look of its bikes over the last few years. However, the new bikes still need to be tweaked and tuned on purchase, just like their predecessors. The dealership took care of most of the details for me, but several critical bolts on the bike were still loose when I got it home.
I cruised around Moscow for about a month before setting off on the trip with my co-pilot, Pete, a friend of mine who had joined me on a previous trip from Denver to Guadalajara Mexico. I knew he would probably be my most valuable asset. Riding a hack is largely a lost art in the modern world, kind of like horseback riding or bow hunting. Yet despite the disadvantages of three wheels it is a wonderful and entertaining skill to obtain. Itâ€™s more like driving a tractor or wrestling a bear than motorcycling. Still, itâ€™s fun just the same, even if you canâ€™t lean in the corners or cut through traffic with surgical precision. Instead, you are stuck with an awkwardly balanced ATV. The chair pulls to one side, it shakes and rattles like hell and one hundred miles feels like a space launch. On the positive side itâ€™s a real head turner. No one, not even in Moscow, rides anything as ridiculous as an Ural anymore with the exception of the hard core biker community.
For a month I felt like a rock star, sort of. Everyone wanted a ride. Even the police were delighted to see an American on a Russian bike and never dreamed of fining me. Of course, it did cost me $300 in â€œfeesâ€ (read bribes) to register the beast at the special office for foreigners. The only other option was to stand in line for four days, wait patiently for a bunch of painfully slow bureaucrats and probably be forced to pay a bribe anyway.
A few days before I planned to leave, my girlfriend suffered a psychotic episode. I was forced to set aside some of my pre-trip planning for a few days so I could bring her flowers in the hospital. I also couldnâ€™t help but feeling awful for her mental demise, as it was my plans to leave that had ultimately sent her over the edge. Little did I realize that her mental breakdown was a sign of things to come. My girlfriend was drop-dead gorgeous, but ill-equipped to deal with the psychological stress of final exams and a boyfriend about to leave for five months on a motorcycle journey.
Similarly, the bike was a beautiful dream come true, but also ill-equipped to deal with a journey through Central Asia. No amount of affection or attention could resurrect either of my doomed relationships. East meets west Russia can never really be called the west. Ever since the Mongols came charging through and left some of their invading tribes behind itâ€™s been a meeting and mixing point between the east and west. There is no better way to understand this than by crossing Russia overland, slowly. You donâ€™t have to go many miles east of Moscow before the republicâ€™s names become Asiatic, such as Chuvasia, Tartarstan and Bashkortostan. Just like the United States, it is an empire built on conquered territories from indigenous peoples. Of course, the previous inhabitants were massacred earlier by Mongol and Turkik tribes under the leadership of Gengis Khan. The big cities are always populated largely by Russians, but in more provincial areas the Russkies take a back seat to a potpourri of ethnicities.
We knew we were east when a detour took us to a small village in Tartarstan, whose name I donâ€™t recall. There was a small wooden mosque in the middle of town where a muzzien kept the time for the locals with the call to prayer and while everyone spoke perfect Russian, they never used it with one another. However, Islam held little sway over the local population and drunks were common. We planned to pass straight through this sleepy little town, but were captivated by its atmosphere and spent the night at the only hotel. Unlike the usual drab Soviet-era hotels with peeling paint and exposed pipes common throughout Russia, this one had been recently rebuilt and was a tidy little place with white walls and tile floors. According to the woman at the front desk it was built to attract business travellers, but no one ever came. There were plans for a restaurant as well, however, the lack of customers had curtailed the ownerâ€™s plans. Instead, we used this room to store our heavier items rather than lugging them up to our rooms. The lack of visitors wasnâ€™t surprising given that the main road was miles away. If not for the detour, we never would have found it.
Pete checked into the room and I went to the nearby grocery store for a some beers and food for dinner. A young Tartar girl in her late-teens worked the counter and to this day I think she may have been the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She was extremely patient and tolerant with the drunks who came in to buy vodka, beer, cigarettes until she was harassed, then she would briskly send the drunk on his way. She had a special sort of grace to her, the kind I have only ever seen in Russia. It is delicate, patient and feminine, while at the same time assertive, strong and efficient. The perfect feminist. Sexy but not a pushover. I nearly threw Pete out of the sidecar and left with her.
Roads Russia is in desperate need of renewed infrastructure. The roads are woefully inadequate for dealing with the countryâ€™s commercial and private vehicle traffic. In Kazakstan many of the roads are so poorly maintained that the asphalt has formed sharp ridges in the middle of the road, sort of like little mountain ridges. I imagine that these have been caused by years of extreme temperature changes between summer and winter and heavy commercial vehicle traffic. Heading east from Moscow the traffic is heavy until you reach the republic of Chuvasia. Until then the thick with smoking Kamaz trucks, Ladas, Volgas and plenty of police checkpoints.
The police were a hassle as always, but most were so taken aback by two Americans on an Ural and let us go without much fuss. No one wanted a bribe of more than 500 rubles (roughly $17.25 at the time). By the time the journey was over, we had paid three speeding tickets and another for illegal passing. We were fined for riding too close to the presidentâ€™s house in Bashkortostan, pulled over in a no motorcycle zone, fined for an unregistered visa, almost shot by a trigger happy Kazak officer and gave a three dollar â€œpresentâ€ to a Kyrgyz cop with an unnerving laugh. Ironically, the one or two times I really should have been sent up the river -- such as riding inebriated with four sloshed Kyrgyz men hanging from every any available surface and in search of prostitutes -- I was let off. Kyrgystan: The First Breakdown To the Uralâ€™s credit it survived some rough roads before it conked out. We loaded up the bike with at least two times the recommended weight limit and rode between 90 and 100 kilometers (56 and 62 mph.) an hour on the highway, contanstly pushing the bike to its recommended top speed of 95 kilometers an hour.
Before the bike suffered its fatal blow, it carried us as far south as lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgystan, a high-altitude, semi salt water lake and the countryâ€™s premier vacation destination. The combination of girls sunbathing in bikinis, yurts and grazing livestock give it a sort of Central Asian Baywatch feel. To get there we rode east from Almaty along the A351, then took the A362 to Karakol on the Kyrgyz side.
The border was little more than two little shanty complexes in the middle of an alpine field. The Kazak side was relatively modern, complete with a laptop and digital camera set-up for recording visitors as they came and went. The Kyrgyz side, however, was just a small wooden trailer with a desk inside, where entry procedures were taken care of with a pen and paper.
The bike died about 100 kilometers (62 miles) outside of Bishkek. Pete was driving when there was a sudden, horrendous snapping sound from the engine, followed by a grinding noise. Next it began to lose power, forcing us to pull over. Until that moment our mechanical problems had been more comic than serious. A muffler had fallen off near the Russian border in Kazakstan, but it was easily mended by a mechanic in Astana. Later, the gear shift rattled loose and we rode at least ten kilometres before noticing. We had to putter back in fourth gear to retrieve it. At first the problem didnâ€™t seem serious and an extremely drunk Kyrgyz mechanic who wandered by agreed with us. He told us we could push the bike to his cousinâ€™s house and work on it there. He insisted that the problem was the points. Explaining to him that the ignition was electronic was futile. He refused to believe that such an invention had ever been applied to an Ural. â€œOh Iâ€™m in such a sorry state,â€ he slurred, his breath reeking of vodka. â€œBut I can fix it. I can fix anything!â€ After pushing it to his cousinâ€™s house, we broke out the tools and were joined by about six or seven more drunk and stoned mechanics who took an interest in the bike. After much sweating and cursing we managed to remove the cover from the ignition, revealing the electronic innards to the drunk mechanic. â€œOh.â€ He said. â€œI thought you had the ordinary kind, but thisâ€¦ thisâ€¦ I canâ€™t fix this.â€ The scene that followed is too long to describe here, but it involved a lot of men popping funny colored pills, smoking joints rolled out of newspaper, a lot of vodka consumption, many expletives and a little wrenching.
We eventually figured out that the bike would need to be towed to Bishkek for repairs and I pushed it to the house belonging to the most respectable looking of the junkies. I gathered as many valuables as I could carry and paid him ten dollars to watch the bike for two days. Pete and I then took a taxi to Bishkek.
Pete left the next day to catch his flight from Almaty back to the States, as we had planned long ago. I was to continue the trip on my own. That afternoon I took a taxi to the two big automotive bazaars in Bishkek. At the Alamedinsky bazaar I found Alek, a used parts dealer, and his partner Zamir, who were willing to take on the job. The two of them worked out of shipping container number 96.
The former Soviet Union is full of similar bazaars. They sell everything from livestock to used nuts and bolts and do it all from the inside of rusty shipping containers and makeshift wooden tables. Hardly anyone can afford to shop at the stores in town. The bazaars on the outskirts of the cities are the heart and soul of commerce for the locals.
The next day we arranged for an UAZ flatbed truck to take me out to the house where I left the bike and bring it back. The bike was safe, but in a pitiful condition. I found it in the yard where I left it with children crawling on top and all my belongings scattered about the ground. â€œIâ€™m sorry,â€ said the woman of the house. She looked to be about 50 years old, meaning she was closer to 30 in those parts. She was wearing a flower print headscarf and simple hand-made dress. â€œYou should have seen them. They were all drunk and everywhere. I finally managed to chase them away last night. They were awful,â€ she moaned. Exactly who â€˜theyâ€™ were I donâ€™t know, but it was clear that my ten dollars had not gone toward anything useful. The junkies had likely drunk and smoked it away before I had even reached Bishkek. She pleaded with me to leave her some more money before I left. In retrospect maybe I should have, but I was enraged at finding that my bike and belongings had not been looked after. I suppose it was foolish of me to ever think that they would have been.
We moved the bike from the house to a small slope, parked the truck at the bottom of the incline and lifted the bike into the back of the truck with the help of two locals. That was to be the last I ever saw of that miserable little town.
We unloaded the bike outside the bazaar and used some tow ropes and a Moskvich to pull it back to Zamirâ€™s house. He lived in a trailer on the outskirts of Bishkek with his wife and three children. Nearby was a rubbish pile and a small grungy river that seemed to be used for nothing more than disposing of garbage. Zamir explained to me that he had gone â€œbankruptâ€ five years ago and was forced to move into the trailer with his family. Nearby, he owned a small plot of land and was slowly building a house in his free time. How he will ever manage to do it between his working hours at the bazaar and his side job as a radiator repairman, I donâ€™t know. All I know is that it will be a long time before he and his kids ever have a decent place to live. However, they made the most of what they had and even built a shower in their yard. Overall, they seemed oblivious of their poverty; although, Zamir pined for the good old days of the Soviet Union when he had a steady job as a machinist at a local factory and never worked past three p.m.
Zamirâ€™s cousin began the repairs. He removed the alternator, dissected it and began looking for electrical shorts. This was an easy problem and I hoped that an electrical short was the cause of the Uralâ€™s demise. However, a look deeper into the engine revealed an ugly picture. To understand what happened you must first know how the Ural engine is designed to deliver power to the alternator to recharge the battery. I am not a great mechanic and the online Ural manual does not provide names for the broken parts, but I will do my best to explain. The latest Urals use a set of three cogs to deliver power between the crankshaft, ignition and alternator. The first and largest cog is connected to the crankshaft and is positioned nearest to the ground. Next, there is a second, medium-sized cog that turns the ignition. This cog is connected to the smallest cog that spins a rod inside the alternator. Thus, the crankshaft spins the ignition which spins a little rod â€˜thingeeâ€™ inside the engine that seems to generate electricity by turning some sort of a magneto inside the alternator. Therefore, I assume the snapping sound was the noise the rod inside the alternator made as it snapped in two. The top cog then crashed into the ignition cog, thereby crushing the latter to shatter into four large pieces. The grinding noise was the sound of the crushed metal bits working their way deeper and deeper into the engine. Ouch.
Conventional logic says that while the steel in an Ural is heavy and stodgy, it makes up for this by being indestructible. Sadly this is not true. It took roughly three weeks, four mechanics, one machinist and about $500 to bring the Ural back to life. In addition to the devastated cogs, one of which had to be removed with a blowtorch, we discovered that the left-hand piston was as black and carbonized as a piece of charcoal.
We also needed to call in a team of deaf and dumb (I mean that literally) Kazak electricians to rebuild the alternator after the bike had been put back together. It would send spark to the plugs, but wouldnâ€™t charge. The end of the road Leaving Bishkek was a comedy of errors. I attempted to leave for Uzbekistan for four days in a row, but was forced to turn back each time. It was supposed to be a two to three day journey. However, I discovered a new bug in the repair job every time I attempted to leave.
In the end I had to leave for the Kazak border as I didnâ€™t have enough time left on my on my Kyrgyz visa to reach Uzbekistan. I almost crossed the border back to Kazakstan with only a mere passport check, but at the last second I was stopped by the customs official who wanted to see the paperwork for the bike. The last four days of leaving, returning and repairing the bike had left my belongings an awful mess and it took me a while to fish out my documents. After much searching, I was unable to find the customs form showing my vehicle had legally crossed the border. The customs officer was a young Kyrgyz man whose daddy had obviously arranged for him to have such a lucrative position. â€œThis is very serious,â€ he told me. â€œWithout a form the only thing I can do is impound the vehicle for three days. You must then pay a fine equal to three times the cost of the vehicle, plus $200.â€ â€œThatâ€™s outrageous,â€ I protested. â€œI came in through the border near China and they didnâ€™t give me a form. I think they were drunk,â€ I lied. In the former Soviet Union â€˜they forgot because they were drunkâ€™ is usually a legitimate excuse. He seemed to buy my story, but he wasnâ€™t going to let me off that easily. An American without proper documents is a godsend for a border guard in Central Asia and he wanted to take me for all I was worth.
I followed him into the customs booth where I proceeded to make a fuss. I shouted, screamed and made up every possible excuse I could think of. After about two or three minutes of my wailing he said he had a proposition. â€œVery well Mr. Romriell. Youâ€™re a business man. I have a business proposition for you. Leave the bike here and never come back!â€ â€œThatâ€™s ridiculous,â€ I said. â€œThere must be some other way.â€ â€œCome with me,â€ he replied motioning for me to follow him. We left the main room where his boss was watching and he asked for $100 to let me go. Eventually, I talked him down to $75 and left. It was still too much money, but I was relieved to get away. Ironically, his first proposition to leave the bike would have ultimately saved me more money. End part I Part II The beginning of the end The ride back to Almaty was trouble free, except for a broken turn signal. Yet by the time I reached the city I noticed a distinct tapping sound from the engine. I knew it was bad news. I followed the â€˜no motorcycleâ€™ signs in downtown Almaty back to the hotel I had stayed at weeks earlier.
I never did discover the reason bikes are forbidden, but it makes for an excellent way to find downtown. Motorcycles and large trucks are barred from entering some downtown areas in many cities in Central Asia. Just as I began to become indignant and demand to know why, he saw my passport, smiled and let me go. The next morning I met Jun Ishibashi, a Japanese guy on his way around the world on a 250 c.c. Suzuki Jebel. He was planning to change his oil at a local bike shop and I decided to follow him in the hope that someone would say the ticking noise was no big deal. The owner of the store said the noise was not the valves, as you might think, but the sound of the cogs clattering away. He told me that he had too much work to be bothered with an Ural -- his shop was full of top-line KTMs and Jap bikes -- but said I could take the bike apart on the property and that he would offer me all the help he could. A quick look revealed that one of the cogs was loose, but after tightening it down and re-adjusting the timing the noise wouldnâ€™t go away. I had to put the bike back together in the dark and I did a hack job with the silicon gasket sealer. By the time I left Almaty, it was late and my bike was spewing oil everywhere. Unfortunately, all the hotels were full so I decided to ride at night. I bought a four liter container of heavy weight oil from a gas station, filled up my tank and left. It was difficult to find my way out of town in the dark. After about an hour of making wrong turns and asking gas station attendants for directions, I found the long line of prostitutes and no-tell motels that line the main drag leaving the city. I made it about twenty kilometres (12.4 miles) outside town when my battery light came back on. The short had returned. There was no way I could rebuild the alternator by myself and riding all night with the headlight would be impossible. Eventually, I would eat all the battery charge and run out of spark. My previous electric troubles had taught me that I could cover roughly 400 kilometers (248 miles) with the headlight off and the battery light on. However, with the lamp on I had no idea how far the bike would make it, so I reluctantly turned around to look for a hotel.
And her sister After much searching I found a grungy little motel run by what looked like a fat Kazak madam. She looked confused when I asked for a room. â€œJust you?â€ she asked stubbing out her cigarette in the overflowing ash tray. â€œYes,â€ I replied, only then noticing that the prices were listed per hour. I explained my situation and the fat woman had a chat with her somewhat attractive assistant. â€œThereâ€™s only one room,â€ said the assistant, â€œand itâ€™s already got five people in it, but thereâ€™s room for six.â€ â€œIâ€™ll take just about anything at this point,â€ I said. Then she blushed and said, â€œAnd thereâ€™s my bed, but my sisterâ€™s in the room. Itâ€™s okay. Weâ€™ve done it before. She wonâ€™t mind. You just sleep and leave in the morning. Iâ€™ll be up all night.â€ I hesitated, but quickly decided that sharing a bed with two women would be more agreeable than a single bed in a room full of smelly people Iâ€™d never met before.
I parked the bike, took a shower, then came back to reception for the keys to the room. â€œFollow me,â€ the assistant said, then slammed a shot of vodka. She giggled and tripped on the stairs as she led me to the second floor. She looked to be in her mid-twenties and was cute, although her thighs seemed to be putting a lot of pressure on her form-fitting jeans. She led me down the grungy corridor toward the room. The white walls and floor were stained with cigarette burns and years of neglect. She pounded on the door, shouting loudly at her sister to wake up. After about a minute of screaming, her sister opened the door with a groan. I never figured out what she looked like. She was short, wore a bathrobe and her face was completely obscured by a tussle of tangled hair. The pair began to shout at each other in Kazak, but didnâ€™t forget to invite me into the room. It was small and neat with some plastic posters of nature scenes on the wall, a small stereo in the corner and a T.V. in front of the two beds. These were placed right next to each other. After two or three more minutes of screaming at each other, the two stopped bickering and offered me some clean sheets. â€œIâ€™ll see you in the morning,â€ the assistant said, then started to leave the room, but stopped at the door. â€œYou donâ€™t want anything else?â€ she asked with a confused expression on her face. â€œNo. Nothing at all.â€ â€œOkayâ€¦ Ummâ€¦ Weâ€™ll be downstairs drinking vodka if you want to join us,â€ then winked and left. When I woke up she was laying next to her sister in the other bed. And that is how I slept with a prostitute and her sister.
The short road to Tashkent I woke up around 10 a.m. feeling groggy. I retrieved the bike from its parking spot and angrily fended off a few questions from onlookers. The bike was a disaster. It was spewing oil everywhere, covering the engine and me in a slimy coating of goo. When I saw the mess, I began to suspect that the electric short might be due to oil on the ignition or alternator. With this knowledge in mind, I headed back to town in search of mechanic. I stopped at a large, Soviet-era garage on the outskirts of town. They seemed to service a bit of everything and inside was full of Ladas, Mercedes and Volkswagons on top of lifts with grungy Russian and Kazak mechanics working on them. It was a large concrete and glass building separated into one large main are with small rooms along the side specializing in different problems. I went to the one labelled â€œMotorcycles,â€ but the man in the room laughed at me for being so naÃ¯ve. â€œThatâ€™s old,â€ he said. â€œWe donâ€™t service motorcycles anymore.â€ I then told him my problem was electrical, taking care to explain that the alternator was the same as on many Russian cars. He then directed me to the electrician three doors down. He was an elderly man in thick coke bottle lens glasses and oil overalls. He explained that he had far too much work to deal with a fussy motorcycle alternator. Frustrated, I went back to the bike, took off the ignition cover and cleaned the spinning bits. After I put it back together, the battery light turned off when I started the bike, so I was reasonably certain that the problem was a short. A smart man would have found a hotel, slept for a few hours then put the engine cover back on with a proper coating of gasket sealer. I, however, was tired, pissed off and frustrated. Also, my visa was unregistered and I was running out of time. By law foreigners must register their visas in Kazakstan within 72 hours. I had planned to be in Uzbekistan within two days, but my attempt to repair the bike had eaten up most of my time. I had tried to register it when I arrived in Almaty, however, the people at the registration office were unhelpful and obstinate. They insisted that only the company that invited me could register me.
My first time through Kazakstan Pete and I had registered our visas in less than five minutes in Astana, the capital. However, the police in Kazakstan seem to work according to individual fiefdoms and were not nearly as organized in Almaty. The woman at the registration office told me that only the organization which had invited me could register the visa. Legal troubles I asked the travel agent that had sent me the invitation what to do, but he explained that registration by official means would be difficult and expensive in Almaty. You see, it is common knowledge that a visa invitation for just about any country in the former Soviet Union is a racquet used by curropt officials to make more money. Usually, you need an invitation to receive a visa. To get this you need to contact a company that will acquire a real, or sometimes bogus, hotel booking or invitation. This is then sent to you -- the traveller. The foreign ministries have a list of companies that have greased their palms properly and will generally issue invitations to with no questions asked. The travel agent explained that it would be easier and cheaper to simply bribe the border guards, or convince the police department in the border town of Shymkent -- or some other small city -- to register me for a â€œfee.â€ Foolishly, I assumed that the sooner I reached the border the cheaper the â€œfeeâ€ would be. Once again I forgot that Westerners without the proper paperwork are big money for local cops. I try not to get upset about being forced to bribe police. After all, most businesses and individuals in the States are forced to pay large taxes and are subject to high government costs. In Kazakstan, the government doesnâ€™t work, but almost no one pays taxes. Instead, you just bribe police, the mafia and various ministries to perform certain favors for you. In some ways the result is almost more efficient than in most Western countries, since you get what you pay for. Rather than paying taxes, you just pay for what you need. Of course, rather than reinvest this money in good governance, officials just spend it on new toys for themselves. It also doesnâ€™t help that corruption is not considered breaking the law; itâ€™s just how things are done.
After putting the bike back together, I rode to the Almaty bazaar and bought a car battery and some extra long cables and put them in the chair. I figured that between the bikeâ€™s battery and a spare battery I could easily make the 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) to Tashkent, even if the electrical short came back. I also bought about eight liters of oil and planned to stop every 100 kilometers (63 miles) or so to check the level. Besides, I reasoned that it would be good for the old air-cooled twin to rest often in the summer heat. I hoped to find a mechanic in Tashkent who could solve my troubles more cheaply than in Almaty, the New York of Central Asia. About 60 kilometers (41 miles) outside of Almaty I was pulled over for a document check. At first, I passed the cop my American driverâ€™s license only hoping that he wouldnâ€™t ask to see my passport with the unregistered visa. Unfortunately, he wanted to see it too. It didnâ€™t help that the Kazak border guards screwed up and stamped my passport with the wrong date. I threw a fit. I screamed. I shouted. I called the border guards a bunch of drunken fools. I said it was no way to treat a foreign guest. I said I would call my embassy. But it had no effect. We went into his office. â€œOhâ€¦ This is very bad,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s at least a $200 fine, plus you have to be detained for at least three days. Then you have to be deported. And you get a big, ugly stamp in your passport saying that youâ€™ve been deported.â€ â€œI want to see it in writing,â€ I said. He smiled and got out a big blue binder. â€œItâ€™s right here.â€ â€œAlright, alrightâ€¦ Go ahead! Arrest me! Iâ€™m sick and tired of this trip. You can take the fucking motorcycle too,â€ I said. He took my passport and scribbled some information in another binder. Next to my name I saw the names of several other foreigners. This was not the first time he had done this. Next, he slammed the binder shut and held out his hand. â€œMoney,â€ he said with a bored expression on his face. â€œHow much?â€ We agreed on $35. Three kilometres down the road I was pulled over for speeding and paid a nine dollar bribe to avoid the trouble of going back in the opposite direction to pay the fine and come back the next day for my license. It was a blisteringly hot day and I rode without my leather through the dust. Even though I knew each kilometre might be my last, I was determined to make the most of it. There is nothing finer than an unpaved Kazak road. I love the gravel, the potholes, the clouds of dust, the big, smoking Kamaz trucks and the open spaces where you can mash down the throttle and go as fast as your bike will take you. Okay, so an Ural wonâ€™t do much more than 45 miles per hour on gravel, but with the hack it feels like a space launch. I blazed along for about 60 kilometers (41 miles) more before the right-hand muffler fell off, again. I waited for it to cool, then rolled it up in a bunch of newspapers and threw it into the chair to reattach later. It was only the beginning of my troubles that day.
About 120 kilometers (82 miles) from Almaty the bike sputtered and began to loose power. My heart sank and I pulled over to investigate the problem. It didnâ€™t take long to realize that the ignition relay box was missing. Originally the Ural had this capacitor-type thing called an akumatator in Russian. All the ignition wires are channelled into this device which I think has some sort of relay-type function, but I donâ€™t know precisely what it does. The original was fried when the alternator blew out. We had replaced it with a used piece off a Niva (a Russian four-by-four) and drilled a hole to keep it in place with a long bolt. It was a good kludge job, but the rough Kazak roads rattled it loose. I walked up and down the road four times in search of the akumatator, but without success. I then pushed the bike back to a nearby house with a restaurant, drank a liter of water and went out in search of the device again. I found it just off the road in the high grass, where it had landed shiny side down. I re-attached it as snuggly as possible and set off. The process of hunting down the akumatator had taken about three hours. It was already about five oâ€™clock and my daylight hours were running low, as was my energy level. I had slept little the night before and the rough day of riding had rattled my nerves and patience. I made it another 20 kilometers, but the heat, oil leakage and myterious tapping noise had taken their toll. Things were not about to get any better. end part II The gas station I stopped at a gas station to refill and asked if ther was anyone who knew anything about Urals. The bike had been much less powerful since it lost the akumator. The kid at the gas station answered in the affirmative. â€œYeah, the welders at the gas station there are Ural experts. You should see the stuff theyâ€™ve done to their bikes.â€ I thanked him, but said I prefered to press on. I pulled out of the gas station and tried to make it up a small incline, but the bike wouldnâ€™t top 10 kilometers an hour.
So I turned around and decided to see what help I could find at the ramshackle gas station. There I met, Sarsen, Sijen and Ersultan. The trio were welders and busy building a new gas station. However, they had little work to do as the man that hired them had failed to deliver new materials for over a week. They had been doing nothing more than hanging out in the concrete shell of a building and watching bad movies on a little black and white television. The lack of action was making them stir-crazy and my shitty bike was just what they needed to liven up their lives. Sarsen was the eldest. A slender, seniewy man of 27 with short cropped hair, a grip of steel and fierce expression. The tatoos on his hands and arms suggested that he had spent time in prison and he was missing part of his left index finger. â€œA wood chopping incedent,â€ he claimed. The large pores and wrinkels on his face suggested years of alcohol and cigarette abuse. He looked much older than 27. Sijen was his cousin, or brother, I never clearly understood their relationship. He was clearly more responsible than the eldest. He was a smart kid with a whispy mustache and distinctly Asian features. Ersultan had a slightly more European features, with a big nose, reddish hair and a thick mustache. He was the cross-eyed son of a mullah and could recite passages from the Koran by heart. However, he preferred drinking and cigarettes to religion. We were fast friends and even faster enimies.
That night we tuned the valves, fiddled with the spark and welded the exhaust back on. However, none of our efforts would make the ticking noise go away. In the morning, we set to work again. This time we removed the valves and discovered that they were too carbonized to close. To fix this problem, the three welders had a clever trick. First, they ground part of a stone into a fine powder and mixed it with oil. Next they attached a piece of rubber surgical hose to the end of a hand-powered drill. They then placed the valves in the hose, set the valves inside the valve-seat and began spinning. The spinning motion was used to grind off the excess carbon. By the time they had finished, the edges of the four valves were as shiny as new. Afterward, they placed the valves back in the covers and poured water through to make sure they werenâ€™t warped. Great trick. Regretfully, it wasnâ€™t enough and after we had re-assmbled the bike it still wouldnâ€™t run properly. We pulled the cyclinders off and found they were warped. Fixing the bike would be another three week venture, at least. We went to lunch and Sarsen gave me his advice. â€œLeave that piece of shit here. In Kazakstan we say that if you want to be tormented, buy a motorcycle. Leave it here and get on the next bus. If you go, Iâ€™ll personally take you to buy the ticket and make sure you leave safely. If you stay here, I donâ€™t know what will happen to you. I wonâ€™t vouch for your safety.â€ I was ready to take his advice, but I knew that all three of them had bikes and Sijen claimed his engine was the best of the bunch. Earlier he had proudly told me stories of its amazing pulling capacity and speed. I offered to buy it. I told him I would give him $200 for the engine and insallation. He was elated. All we needed to do, he said, was to take a taxi to Bishkek -- only 90 kilometers away -- and buy some parts. Sijen had recently removed the engine to tune it, but he needed one final part. The engine came off a Dnieper, but neither of us figured that would make any difference. When Sarsen found out about this idea, his face went dark. â€œLeave that bike. Leave it here. Trust me. You donâ€™t even know if that other engine will work. Itâ€™s been sitting in Sijenâ€™s garage for who knows how long now and one other person owned it. Who knows what sort of noise it will make. Trust me. Get on the bus.â€
I knew that he was pissed off about the money. Two-hundred dollars was a kingâ€™s ransom in those parts and he wanted it for himself. However, I donâ€™t think he was aware of how much I had given Sijen to do the job. In any case, he was bitter and jealous. Still, Sijen was excited about the job and he was going to do it with the help of another friend. We towed the bike into Sijenâ€™s village, Otar, and returned to the gas station where set down for a round of vodka drinking. We planned to go to town the next day. What exactly happened after we began drinking Iâ€™ll never know. I retired early from the drinking bout, as I was confident that trying to keep up with the three would give me fearsome hangover. Sarsen woke me up at 4 a.m. â€œLucas! Lucas! Get up! Itâ€™s almost seven oâ€™clock. Time to go to Bishkek,â€ he shoued. I knew it was far too early, but got up anyway and staggered out the back room. There were two rooms, one with a T.V. and matresses set up on the floor for sleeping and another that doubled as a kitchen and storage area for their construction materials. The main room looked like a cafe after a suicide bombing. The cups were all shattered on the floor, there was blood on the walls, the bread we had been eating was all over the floor, along with ash trays, cigarettes and everything else. In the corner, Sijen was crying. Sarsenâ€™s left hand was bloody. â€œSit down,â€ Sarsen said turning over a bucket for me to use as a seat. â€œSomeone has broken the dogâ€™s leg,â€ he said. â€œThatâ€™s terrible. Who did it?â€ I asked cautiously. â€œErsultan did it. He did it, because he said the dog tried to wake you up. He said â€˜I wonâ€™t let the dog disturb Lucasâ€™ sleep and threw it against the welding tanks. Did the dog try to wake you up?â€ â€œNo. I donâ€™t remember a thing.â€ â€œWell you had better wake him up and ask him why he did it. Because he said he did it because you asked him to. And now YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE! YOU BROKE THE PUPPYâ€™S LEG!â€ Sijen looked up from the corner with tears in his eyes. â€œI raised her from a puppy. I used to feed her milk when she was a puppy,â€ he sobbed. He was holding the dog in his lap caressing her gently. The puppy was a little tramp that they had brought back to the gas station from the village and I was shocked at their sudden concern for the animals wellfare. Initially when we returned to the gas station they had forgotten it in the trunk of the taxi. After the taxi driver returned it, they spent the rest of the evening tormenting the little mogrel. Now it had gone from being a miserable wretch they used to tie up with a piece of wire to a sacred gas station mascot. Someone had hurt the dog in a drunken rage and now someone was going to pay. Sarsen continued to accuse me of being a heartless puppy basher. I looked to Sijen, thinking he would come to my aid, but he said I was to blame too. For the next three hours, Sarsen chased me around the gas station, accusing me of breaking the puppyâ€™s leg. First he demanded $100 to fix the puppyâ€™s leg. Sijen seemed to back him up on this idea. Since he was drunk, adrenilized and had a shovel, I gave in. It was about 5 a.m. and I had a hangover, combined with a significant lack of sleep. I was also very far out of my depth and scared for my life. Additionally, I had a sneaking suspicion that I wouldnâ€™t be the first person Sarsen tried to kill, or killed. I already knew Sarsen was a dangerous character, but now I was convinced he was capable of murder. It all came to a very surreal end at 7 a.m., when they all said letâ€™s get in the car and go to town. The threats to murder me stopped. The previous plan to take the dog to town to find a vet was abandoned and she was left to fend for herself outside the station.
We then went to the taxi driverâ€™s house, where his wife made us tea and prepared breakfast. However, Sarsen continued to taunt me about money and even pulled my mobile phone out of his pocket claiming it was his. Later, he would hide my motorcycle helmet and other things, claiming they had disappeared during the evening. It took me three days and the help of several locals to get my things back. As the taxi driver began to slice open a watermelon for breakfast, Sarsen took me aside. He put his arm around me. Told me I was his best friend and asked me to give him my mobile phone as a gift. He also asked for money. I said no and he became physical and aggressive. I broke. I didnâ€™t hit him. I knew that hitting him would risk ending my tentative agreement to have the bike fixed. I was also pretty sure he would kick my ass. Instead, I made a scene. I screamed at him to fuck off in English. I screamed and shouted with all my might. All the stress, pressure, pain and torment of the last four weeks boiled up from inside me and came out in long series of explicatives and curses. I used every bad word that I knew, all the while pleading with him. I shouted loud enough for the whole town to here and they did. Soon the street began to fill with locals who came to see what the fuss was about. Sarsen sulked away, looking angry. The taxi driver also looked worried and insisted that we leave the breakfast table and go back to the gas station. There, he forced Sarsen to give me back the money and we went into town. Sarsen insisted on holding my hand on the way, to prove that we were still friends. I donâ€™t think I have ever hated anyone else as much as I did that man. In the end Sijen got the parts and put the new engine in the bike. While he worked, I went to live with the taxi driver and his family. I am very grateful to them. The bike, however, would not run again. At least not while I was the owner. We managed to shoe-horn in the engine, but the drive shaft was too long and I was out of time.
I only had a few days left on my visa and I had had enough. Repairs on the Ural had already cost more than $1,000, which is more than the bike is worth used. Much to my shagrin, I left it with the welders and took a bus the next morning back to Almaty. The next day I left for Uzbekistan on an overnight bus. I found a police officer in the border town of Shymkent to arrange my visa registration for a $20 bribe. However, Kazakstan gave me one final kick in the ass on my way out the door. I knew the money changers near the Uzbek border were not to be trusted, but I figured that after all I had been through I could surely avoid being swindled by a money changer. I changed my dollars for som and counted the absud amount mountain of cash I had been given carefully, I thought.
When I counted my cash again in Tashkent, I discovered I was $50 poorer. It will be a long time before I return to Kazakstan.
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