Motorcycling it to Russia and beyond

A motorcycle trip to Mongolia and back through Central Asia and Russia, on a DR350.


This is the story of a six month motorcycle trip from the UK to Mongolia, through Russia, Central Asia, the Caucuses, and Turkey. On the first half the trip I travelled on my own, but fate intervened and I rode with a pillion through Russia and Mongolia. The bike used was a Suzuki DR350. Most of the photographs on this site were taken by Yevgeniya Belova, and all credit and copyright should be presumed hers.

The story is split into these sections, or blog posts:

Some background information:

My name is Nathan Coy and I was born and have lived in Nottingham in the UK, I was 23 at the time of the trip. I started riding motorcycles when I was 18, and quickly developed a passion for riding to remote places on the most interesting roads I could find. I also became involved in repairing, maintaining, and modifying motorcycles, as the hobby quickly took over my whole life. Over a four year period I rode my bikes all over Europe, as well as the UK itself, always trying to seek out the most interesting and idylic places to ride through. When a friend leant me copies of infamous motorcycle travel DVDs Mondo Enduro and Terra Circa, my eyes were opened to the possibility of venturing much on two wheels than I'd previously thought possible. I set off on this trip nine months later!

Yevgeniya Belova was born in Uralsk, Kazakhstan. She has lived in St Peterburg in Russia for seven years, and at the time of the trip was 25. She arranged to travel with the three Frenchmen in their classic Citroens via the internet, and acted as their photographer and translator (in Russian speaking areas).

The bike is a 1995 Suzuki DR350. It is the enduro model which differs from the more common 'S' and 'SE' models in various ways in order to make it lighter. For the trip I fitted the headlamp unit and three phase alternator off an 'S' model bike along with a battery, reg/rec and wiring to go with it. I added luggage racks to the bike myself, though the side racks were later altered by a mechanic in Almaty to make space for a pillion and the extra footrests added. I also fitted a heavier rear shock spring shortly after setting off as the weight I was carrying with all the tyres etc was just too much for the standard spring. I fitted a 22l Acerbis fuel tank intended for the Honda XR range, making the brackets myself which attached to the bike at the same places the standard plastic tank did.

I left home at the start of May 2009, and returned home almost 6 months later at the end of October. I estimate the distance covered on the trip to be somewhere around 20,000 miles. The route below can also be viewed in google maps here.

I have no idea what the future now has in store for me.
Nathan Coy

Leaving home, and leaving Europe

May 2009

The last week or two before departure was one of the most stressful moments of my life. I'd left everything to the last minute and even had to reassemble the topend of my engine only three days before I left. The pressure to leave 'on schedule' was set by my would-be travelling partner, Leon Pang. When I decided to do this trip I knew I wanted to travel with one or more other riders for some group camaraderie and saftey when in some of the most remote areas of the world. However I'd ended up with only one possible riding partner who I'd got in touch with through the internet. Once all the gear was loaded on the bikes I could finally relax a little knowing that from then on, anything that fate threw in my path would have to be dealt with as best I could from the road.

All loaded up and ready to go.

Riding down to Dover knowing that the epic journey had now began was a fantastic feeling, though it still felt hard to believe the reality of what I was planning to do. We spent the night camped outside a pub near Dover for an early start across the channel the next morning, and I slept soundly after a good half a dozen or more ales consumed.

Things started to go wrong as soon as the ferry had arrived in France. Leon's bike showed minimal signs of electrical activity and had to be pushed off the boat. With all the luggage piled on the bike bump starting it was going to be difficult, so we decided towing behind my bike would be the easiest way to get it started. This turned into a comical charade in the port loading area, as not only would his bike refuse to fire up but Leon clearly was struggling with the basic aspects of bike-to-bike towing. Stopping to do a u-turn even saw Leon coast past me before acting surprised when his moving bike yanked mine onto its side as I desperately shouted to try and stop him. In the end his problem was traced to a loose electrical connection and we hit the motorway heading East.

A short while later I had to distmantle my carburetor at the side of the motorway after the slide had come disconnected from the throttle shaft. Leon had ridden past me oblivious to my spluttering bike coming to a halt on the hard shoulder, and I was starting to get an idea that the travelling partnership was not going to work.

Then a random fuel stop signalled distaster when checking the oil level on my bike found I'd somehow lost over a litre and half from a tank of only 2 litres. One of the rocker cover bolts had come loose due to a weak thread, and the oil gallery it passed through must have emptied the whole tank of oil on to the exhaust to be burnt in to thin air whilst I was riding down the motorway. Leon had been riding behind me the whole time so I did question to myself how so much oil could have been lost in a short space of time without him seeing the smoke. The damaged thread needed helicoiling so we hatched a plan to head back 20 kilometers to the Belgian city of Mons and seek out a workshop to get the bike fixed. I feared the bike may have suffered engine damage from riding it (unknown) with almost no oil, but I would have to wait and see.

We towed my bike back to the city, with the towing roles now reversed from the morning. I started to further question Leon's riding competance on this half an hour evening bimble, and I was suprised when he chose to ride right into the center of the city before coming to halt. It was getting late and we were going to need somewhere to sleep for the night, but since we were now in the center I went off to find an internet cafe to find out if there was a Suzuki motorcycle dealer in the city which we could try and get the bike to whilst the roads were quiet. A long walk found an internet center, but from some quick web searching there appeared to be a total lack of bike shops in Mons.

I returned to the bikes to find Leon looking particularly stressed and rattled, he'd apparently been given some grief by passing police and drunks and I could tell his temper was near breaking point. I wasn't sure what the best course of action now was, but he wanted to ride back out the city and sleep next to a car garage we'd seen on the way in. In the absense of a better plan I agreed and set the bikes up for another towing stint. Leon set off with a lot of throttle without having tensioned the tow rope, so I wasn't surprised when it instantly snapped. What I did find strange was that Leon carried on apparently unaware that he wasn't towing my bike behind him.

Leon eventually figured out that he was riding solo and came back to collect me, this time he set off at a more sensible pace only to veer wildly across the narrow road coming very close to hitting parked cars. A thought crept into my mind that this was a very unsafe situation, and in the event of Leon crashing I would probably take equal blame. We carried on and I was glad to clear the immediate center, and the narrow roads and parked cars that it contained. We came to a T-junction with the main road out of town, and to my horror Leon rode straight round the corner without stopping. He'd either forgotten he was towing my bike, or was somehow unaware that I would have to follow his bike in a straight line, cutting the corner. Unfortunately the pavement was raised very high with a foot of kerb to get over. When my front wheel hit the kerb the jolt was enough to almost stop Leon's bike dead and he fell off, landing on the pavement.

I felt like I was wittnessing Leon's mental state breaking down, piece by piece. He got up off the floor in a rage, before declaring that he couldn't travel with me any further and was sorry he had to leave me there. I untied the tow rope and waved him goodbye, feeling like a serious liability was driving off down the road. I did feel a little bit worried that he might get himself into further trouble being in a large city late at night with nowhere to stay, but that was no longer my problem. Half an hours walk revealed a camping site on the edge of the city, so I returned to the bike ready to push it there. Just as I set off I was dismayed to see Leon return - He'd decided he couldn't leave me stranded in the city and was going to tow me out. I countered that he wasn't safe to tow anything anywhere, I'd whilst he'd been having a tantram I'd gone off and found somewhere to stay the night. He didn't believe there was a camping site, and even after I gave him simple directions he came back saying that it didn't exist. I didn't feel like conversing with Leon after seeing how quickly he'd been reduced to an irrattional confused mess, but I had no choice but to tell him to follow me to the campsite. Even when we arrived he started complaining and pannicking that it was closed, apparrently oblivious to the fact it was now gone midnight. I merely opened the pedestrian gate and pushed my bike through, trying to imagine how this guy might ever make it across Europe let alone Russia and Mongolia.

My 'Ray Mears' camping setup. I suspect I was the object of much interest and amusement to the Belgian locals.
I'd stripped the top end of my engine the same night I'd arrived with only the haze of a streetlamp to see by, as I'd worried the owners might object to me engaging in some campsite engine surjeory had I waited till the next day. Running without oil and caused the camfollowers to wear heavily, and camshaft bearings were also totally eaten. There was only one way to fix the bike, and it meant obtaining a new cylinder head.

Damaged rocker arms and cam journal - The bearings in the head were worse than this one.

The ride to Belgium had also highlitghted that the rear suspension was a bit on the soft side for the weight I was carrying. Since I was going to be stuck in Mons for at least a week I decided to order a new heavyweight spring to pre-empt any problems. Second hand cylinder heads for DR350s are pretty hard to come by as they are the most common failing point on the bike, but my close friend Nathan back in Nottingham (yes, the same name as me) generously agreed to take the head off his DR350 and send it over. A new head would have cost over a thousand pounds and took weeks to arrive from Japan.

Leon's mental state seemed to be unable to recover from the previous day's events. For some reason he decided he couldn't carry on with the ride down to Turkey without making a drastic change to his plans, and he went through a range of ludicrous decissions changing his mind every 20 minutes, until eventually deciding to ride back to England and hand his bike over to UK overlanding expert David Lambeth to work some kind of voodoo magic fixing all the bike's problems (no-one has ever been sure what these supposed problems were besides a soft shock spring). I'd already decided that Leon was a serious liability and I would not ride with him again, though my soft nature prevented me from directly telling him this and it took him a while to realise we couldn't continue on together.

Whilst I waited for my parts to arrive I killed the time by getting ludicrously drunk every night. This was going fine until one night whilst walking back to the campsite someone managed to remove my wallet from my pocket without me noticing. I hadn't had much cash on me, but my debit and credit card were in there along with my driving license. I had emergency cash stashed on the bike, but no extra cards. Getting the cards sent out would mean staying put somewhere, and with my bike parts about to arrive I was eager to get back on the road as soon as possible and get the trip properly underway. My first planned stop would be in Istanbul, so I now had a fixed budget to get me there, and no driving license in the event of trouble with the police. I was off on my way a couple of days later.

Now riding on my own I picked a route south avoiding motorways, and made stady progressing heading down to Southern Italy. My bike problems were not entirely over as this replacement head also had a weak thread with one of the same bolts which had killed the first head. Previous owners having repeatedly undone and re(over)tightened these bolts had left the threads ready to strip, and this one particular bolt could not be done up tight enough to resist the oil pressure behind it (five years of working on bikes had left me with a pretty good 'feel' for these things). It was a slightly flawed design which must account for a large proportion of dead DR350s. The easy fix would be to remove the head and helicoil the thread, but after so much recent mechanical activity on this bike that was probably more than I could have took. Instead I played around with PTFE tape trying find a way to create a better seal against the high oil pressure. This made my ride through Italy a little less enjoyable than I would have liked, but after a couple of attempts the leak was eventually fixed for good.

Camping overlooking a lake in rural Italy.

Camping rough isn't always that easy in Western Europe, but with my budget now finite it was more important than ever to avoid having to pay for overnight accommodation. Fortunately I only had to spend one night in a commercial camping ground on the whole ride to Istanbul. Sleeping under a basha rather than in a tent was working out nicely, and I was really enjoying waking up in the morning and being able to see the world all around me from my sleeping bag.
I was soon in Brindisi right in the far south of Italy, ready to catch the night ferry to Greece. I'd took the same ferry three years earlier, and like on that trip was planning to disembark at Igoumenitsa in the North of the country. This time around I had a bit too much to drink in the onboard bar and slept right through the unloading at Igoumenitsa, despite sleeping out on deck where I should have heard all the trucks driving off the boat. When I woke up and found it was already daylight I knew instantly that I'd be getting off at the Southern port of Patras instead, and I used the extra time on board the ship to contemplate the nature of fate and coincidence, and how the least significant events could change the coarse of someone's entire life completely, quite possibly without them ever being aware of it. This would become a reoccurring theme for me during this trip.
Arriving in Patras.
The beautiful scenery here on this coast road put me on a real high.

Three years previously I'd found Greece to be very hot, and full of amazing landscapes. However both the heat and the scenery somehow managed to come as a surprise to me now, and I can say of this that the effect something will have on your soul and spirit is surely something that can never be predicted. I really enjoyed riding through the country, and I started to feel really excited about my surroundings for the first time on the trip. Camped for the night on a beach I encountered one of the worst thunder storms I've ever seen, and the basha was really put to the test like I'd hoped it never would be. I stayed mostly dry despite terrential rain, and in the morning I could feel more confident than ever in my sleeping arrangements.

The border crossing into Turkey was fairly painless, and marked the beggining of uncharted territory for me. I was a little anxious about riding into Istanbul as previous bike travel had repeatedly taught me that riding in big strange cities is a recipe for getting lost like a needle in a haystack, but some lucky road choices saw me navigate easily to the area where I planned to stay. I ditched the bike to find the hostel on foot, but managed to spend a lot of time wandering around lost sweating away like an idiot, and then after I'd found the hostel I got even more lost trying to find where I'd parked the bike. There was a surprise in store for me as one of the guests at the hostel was no other than Leon Pang.

I was now carrying four tyres as Leon had discarded one in Mons and I couldn't bring myself to leave it there.

Leon had set off in France the same day i'd left the Mons campsite, but had sped his way South much faster. I was not really that pleased to see him, but was surprised that he'd made it. I noted that he'd took a few suggestions off me and swapped his hefty motocross boots for lightweight army boots, and his racing leathers for jeans. I was going to be stopped in Istanbul at least a week whilst my new driving license and cards were posted to me, but thankfully Leon moved on much sooner. Whilst at the hostel I also met three other British bikers, all of whom I would later see again in Baku, Azerbaijan. I met plenty of interesting people at the hostel and spent plenty of time chatting, sight seeing, and drinking. It had been three years since I'd last stayed in a hostel and I'd forgotten how nice it was to meet and chat with people from other countries and backgrounds. Interestingly, by the end of the trip I was quite sick of meeting fellow travellers and having the same repetitive conversations.

Istanbul to Azerbaijan


So entering Turkey marked the real beginning of the 'Adventure' for me as it was the first time I'd ever left Europe before. I didn't really know what to expect from the country, but my plan was to ride across it at a gentle pace and try and find some nice scenic and quiet roads to drive on.

The black sea coast immediately impressed me

I set off towards the Black Sea coast, where small quiet roads crossed half the length of the country with only a few larger towns on route. There was no real tourism on this part of the coast, compared to built up Eastern part anyway.

 A nice quiet spot to camp, with mountains on oneside...

 And cliffs on the other.

The roads in Turkey are generally in good condition, but because it's not a densely populated place and because there are large areas with only a handful of towns or villages, there aren't a lot of roads compared to European countries. Also there are plenty of gravel and dirt roads though, some marked on main road maps and plenty more not. Cutting inland to keep in the mountains gave me the opportunity to explore a few of these minor roads - Having a detailed and accurrate map here would have been really useful as I would have liked to have travelled more distance this way.

Muddy section, and a frustrating unsigned fork in the road.

A beautiful view is all the more satisfying when you've had to explore off the beaten track to get to it.

Unfortunately my road map was not detailed, and the small unpaved roads it did show were not accurately represented. If I'd been prepared and brought a proper high quality map with me I could have had a really good dirt-road tour of the country, instead it was back to the main roads. This wasn't that frustrating though, as outside of the major cities there was minimal traffic and the routes went through fantastic scenic places.

Two thirds of the way across the country I bumped into Olaf, a BMW riding German. We were heading in the same direction so we agreed to ride together for a while. Olaf was on the big 1200 BMW, so I was a little worried that he would get frustrated by my slow riding speed, however almost straight away after setting off our route took us onto some smaller roads where high speeds became impossible anyway.

Quick fag break and photo-stop.

I wanted to camp with a fire and cook some Kebabs for dinner - It is a key part of Turkish cuisine after all. All the meat in Turkish supermarkets seems to be kept frozen, so this meant be organised and buying it in the morning so it would be defrosted by the evening. We stopped by what would be the only sizeable town of the day and stocked up, on food but also on some wine. Alcohol is not that popular in Turkey so it was prudent to buy it when passing larger towns incase village shops didn't stock it. We made the classic mistake of parking next to a school and got mobbed by kids. They were of course all friendly, though one of the little buggers did try pinching my sunglasses. I was glad I spotted him as I thought these sunglasses commanded a 'Top Gun' style look that would earn me cool points throughout Turkey and the Caucuses. I was also glad to be with Olaf as I would have felt very uncomfortable leaving the bike unattended with so many people and kids fussing over it.

Beginners mistake - Parking next to a school.

Later on in the day we got stopped at a routine Jandarma checkpoint. This is the kind of situation where common scarestories warn you of corruption etc, however in Turkey I never encountered anything of the sort. At this stop the commander only wanted to say hello and ask where we going. He spoke very limited English but was eager to practise it, so we accepted an offer to head back with him and his men to the Jandarma station and drink tea and eat fruit. All the Turkish people I encountered whilst travelling across the country were very friendly and eager speak to foreigners, even in poor villages there was always a very pleasant welcoming atmosphere. I think the Islamic culture and lack of alcohol consumption helped create a very warm society there.

Obligatory posed photo.

Back on the road we took a nice gravelly detour to steer round some roadworks, and eventually ended up in a beautiful canyon area. The road here was also subject to major roadworks as the whole canyon was to eventually be flooded with the construction of a new dam. We lost some time waiting over an hour whilst construction workers high above us blasted into the rock, with the road below shut off. By the time we were moving again it was getting late and we needed to find somewhere to camp soon. Unfortunately the road ran right alongside the river with and there were no side roads off the main road. I was starting to worry that we might end up riding in darkness when we found the first patch of campable land in about 50km. It was right next to the road but we would have to make do, however as soon as it got dark all the traffic ceased anyway leaving us with a fantastic camping spot. We hadn't found any kebab skewers so tent pegs had to make do for the evening cooking.

The next day we got caught in some rain on a mountain road and took a real soaking, but worse still it had turned cold after days of riding in baking heat. We were now approaching the border with Georgia, and after an hour or two stopped we were on our way, now in the former Soviet Union!
The roads in Georgia were even more sparse than in Turkey and we followed one great road for a couple of hours on great challenging rocky hardpac terrain. This road slowly made its way up to a 2500m pass where we could enjoy a great view of the descent down. Here we came accross some armed men without any obvious uniform markings and for a brief moment I was a little worried as to their purpose, but they were government militia operating a road checkpoint. These guys were a tad more serious than their Turkish counterparts, as you'd expect when it's only last year that Georgia actually fought a war with Russia, but they were still friendly enough and I got a photo with this guy. I noted they were all carrying automatic weapons and never put them down even whilst building a fire, making tea, etc.

Olaf spoke good Russian and it really was amazingly helpful there, all the locals spoke fluent Russian. I'd already known that speaking Russian was essential for anyone wanting to travel through this region, but having to stand by and feel stupid whilst Olaf had near fluent conversations with locals really hit this home. From this point on I was constantly being reminded throughout the trip how foolish I was to have not made an effort to at least learn the basics of the language. On the rough potholed roads the DR350 proved itself the dirtbike it is and ploughing along at decent speed on poor terraine was not a problem for the bike. I was surprised a how well the loaded up BMW 1200GS coped with the rough stuff as well, though I think this was mostly due to Olaf having a lot of skill and experience riding these massively heavy bikes off-road. These few days riding left me with a new respect for the BMWs (though you still couldn't have persuaded me to part with my DR350!).
I left Olaf in Tblisi and pushed on to Azerbaijan on my own. The border crossing was a slow and frustrating one, with immature and cliched border guards trying to belittle the people crossing. The customs officer wanted me to pay him for writing the customs document that allowed me to take the bike into the country. What was worse was that it was only permission for the bike to be there three days! I was eager to try and secure longer permission, and I definately wasn't going to pay a penny. After over an hour of arguing, with matey throwing a tantrum and throwing my passport round his tiny office, he gave in and took me to his boss who made it clear that three days was all they could grant the permission for. I may have wasted my own time, but I felt rather smug in not only depriving the guy of his bribe but wasting his time as well. I think some other border officer was meant to give me a grilling after this, but he must have thought better of it after seeing the pantomime with the customs officer.

The road to Baku was full of road works sections and police checkpoints, and was not an enjoyable one. I wasted no time and did a big mile-munching section to make it to the capital. I needed to make sure I didn't have a problem with the customs permission for the bike, and find out when I could take the ferry across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan. When I took the bike down to the port to see what the customs officers there said, I ran into a couple of other British bikers who I'd spoken to through the Horizons Unlimited community. They'd ran into a couple of local bikers who were helping them out, and it was perfect timing for me as well to benefit from their translation assistance.
At the port.

I'd unfortunately arrived the same day as a ferry was leaving, which meant I would have to wait the maximum length of time till the next sailing. I did however arrive in town just before another British biker moved on, so I enjoyed an interesting chat over lunch with the famous Tiffany Coates, a lady who's ridden her old BMW R80 to more countries than you've had hot dinners. I was also fortunate that Russ, another Brit biker who I'd met in Istanbul, turned up a day or two later giving me a partner in crime to investigate all the British style pubs that there are in Baku due to the oil industry.


Late June, early July

Government house, Baku, Azerbaijan.

So after a week of heavy alcohol and kebab consumption in Baku it was time to get the ferry to Kazakhstan. Seems like a straight forward task, but it turned into a right headache. The ferries across the caspian are of course old soviet boats, operated by what seems a fairly small Azeri company and by western standards they're unbelievabley unprofessional. I'd been given a phone number for the "ticket office" but it didn't seem to work so I'd been walking to the docks every morning for a few days to find out if the boat was sailing that day, as this ferry route infamously has no schedule. A week after arriving in Baku the ferry was finally going to sail (I'd been unlucky as a boat had sailed the same day I'd arrived), but not before an incredibely frustrating day trying to secure my passage on that boat. The whole proccess was not helped by the previous night having been a particularly heavy one on the booze. 

Azeri customs officers dropping the intimidating fascade for a brief moment.

The experience can be summed up like so: I spent over half a day outside the "ticket office" patiently waiting to pay to be allowed on the boat. After having dealt with everybody else the ticket bloke, who was a very unpleasant and stereotypically Azeri/Caucasian character, promptly got in a car and drove off to the dock leaving me stood baffled as to whether I just been refused passage on the ferry. As far as I can tell he had some kind of anti-motorcyclist agenda going on and he was going to let the boat sail without me onboard. The whole charade needs to be seen in the context of the guy and his secretary speaking only Azeri and Russian, and trying as hard as they could to communicate as little as possible to anyone wanting to take the ferry. Fortunately I managed to wander into the back of the office and found a guy who spoke english and another who looked like the boss, and after explaining to them I'd been sat outside all day waiting to buy a ticket they got on the phone and summoned old matey back. He didn't seem particularly happy about it. So with my wallet $220 lighter I could finally get on the boat. They'd almost finished loading it so I was rushed on which I think saved me getting any grief off the customs guys. I was pretty stressed out by this point, particularly as I'd apparently come so close to not getting on the boat, so when one of the crew stopped me on the loading ramp and told me my ticket was 'no good' and that I had to pay him $5, I was close to snapping. Needless to say I didn't give him the $5, though I was tempted to give him a good hard shove off the ramp and into the sea. This further added to my stressed mood as I was paranoid that he might take revenge against my bike with all my gear on it whilst we were at sea as punishment for not giving him his 5 quid.
International overlanders collective, sat on deck.

There was a small group of overlanders on the boat; French, American, British and Russian. Everyone had heard the horror stories of people being stuck on these Caspian ferries for days, and my advice to anyone reading this intending on taking this ferry is to be prepared! We sailed out of port only to drop anchor in the bay outside of Baku - There was a storm brewing in the Caspian and boats here are very cautious about sailing on rough seas. Apparrently some years ago this very boat's sister ship sank in a similar storm! The three or four days trapped on the ship merged into each other, with my mental state further strained by suffering chronic diahrea for the whole time on board. I was lucky to have a sizeable group of English speakers to talk with to pass the time, and in particular I struck up a friendship with the beautiful Russian photographer, Eva. She was travelling with three older French guys in two old Citroens, also acting as a translator as well as taking photographs. Speaking with Eva was my first insight into Russian culture and way of life.

Dusk descends over Baku as the ship starts moving...

...only to drop anchor and stay in Azeri waters for several days! Passing the time out on deck.

The boat eventually sailed much of the way across the Caspian sea overnight, so it was late morning when we arrived in Aktau, Kazakhstan. Clearing customs and passport control was very time consuming, and for the vehicles random bits of paper needed randon stamps from random officials - Of course none of these officials were actually too bothered with what was written on the forms, and they could only be found (or not as the case may be) in random offices hidden around the port area. Old fashioned sovietik beaurocracy at its best.

Let loose in Kazakhstan! With two less tyres to carry, the bike no longer looked so comically overloaded.

By the time we'd finished with customs it was late so the overlanding crew agreed to camp together somewhere near Aktau. Driving into the city to find a supermarket was good fun - A convoy of two 1950s citroens, a loaded up landrover with an array of bicycles strapped to it, and my loaded up bike - We drew quite a bit of attention in town when we stopped. When it was time to move off we had a massive stroke of luck that when attempting to drive out the city we got stopped by a Russian motorcyclist who first took us to his swanky office (he ran his own film studio!) to advise us on a lack of likely camping places, and then to a yacht club where we camped up for free on the edge of town.
Russian and Kazakh locals crowding around whilst parked up in the city.

Local biker Vlad shows us somewhere to camp - A lucky break as it was by then dark.

Basha set up in the yacht club, though to keep the sun off, rather than the rain.

Getting out of Aktau and onto the main road proved problematic. The outskirts of the city were a maze of small towns and villages, and tons of roads but no roadsigns. I ended up navigating by the sun/compass and found a road in the right direction. It turned out to be the wrong one however, and I did a long stint riding on a remote sand track before I eventually rejoined the main route. The heat was intense and even in the shade it was baking hot. The tarmac eventually ran out and the "main road" turned into a massively potholed hardpac gravelly affair. I was keeping up a good pace riding around 45mph making full use of the capable enduro suspension on my bike. As the day went on I eventually caught up with the French citroens who were reduced to driving at 20kph (!!) in order to cope with the poor road surface without breaking their fragile suspension. I'd stopped an extra day in Aktau but with DR350 perfectly suited for the poor roads I'd made this time up within a days riding. Since it was getting late I opted to camp the night with the french expedition.

Citroën Acadiane van, with 0.6l 2CV engine.

Citroën Traction Avant, with beautiful Russian girl in the passenger seat.

Suzuki DR350, with scruffy young Englishman at the controls.

Ural 650, with three Kazakh teenagers desperate to get that camera-phone picture of a bunch of strange foreigners.

Who needs piped water when you've got a hole in the ground? Trying not to think about the conversation where someone warned me all ground water in south-western Kazakhstan is poluted from nuclear radiation.

The following day the Citroens set off at the crack of dawn, but despite planning on meeting them further up the road I was content to spend a few more hours resting knowing full well the dirtbike would travel much faster than the cars. The last town on the 'main road' for me was Beyneu, where I would part company with the Citroens who were heading to Uzbekistan, and head off across the piste on the first real off-road test of my trip. I pulled up in town just as the Citroens were finnishing getting a puncture repaired. I'd been advised that this town was home to a former Soviet-era motocross and enduro racing champion, and that he was always eager to meet passing motorcyclists. Eva promised to ask around incase someone knew him, but when we walked into the town's only supermarket we bumped into him doing some shopping! Lyosha invited us back to his house/workshop and gave us a meal and some Kazkh cognac, and showed us photographs of him racing scramblers back in the old days. He also offered some route info for me, for my plan to cross a vast sparsely populated stretch of desert towards Aralsk.
Filling up with petrol for the long remote way ahead. 22l in the tank, and 5l in a jerry can gave me a fantastic range - When the bike was running at its best up to 800km !
 Young boys the world over love motorcycles.
Lyosha had said that I was crazy to take the route I was planning on, his opinion was that it would be impossible to go that way without either a GPS or a human guide. I'm not one to be scared off from something so easily, so I decided to go ahead and give it a shot. I said my goodbyes to the French trio, Dominique, Bernard and Jean-Marie, and of course to Eva before setting off on the road out of town - Though not before an altercation with some drunken locals just on the edge of town, my first glimpse of the dark side of native Kazakh people.

I didn't get off to a confident inspiring start, as the info from Lyosha was to turn off the road onto a track leading the village of Turush. It hadn't occurred to me that would be quite a few tracks leading off across the steppe, and that none of them were important looking or indeed more sizeable or well used than the others. I picked a track and set off on the 50 or so kilometers to the village on what started off as an easy jeep track through mild sand. The route was really a maze of jeep tracks, and I had to keep making random decisions on which path to take. My confidence was only raised by seeing a truck and also a UAZ minibus which I hoped signalled that I was going in the right direction. The second half the way was more sandy, and small hills in particular seemed to have deep sand on the climbs and descents. I was relieved to spot a village after riding roughly the distance I was expecting to have done, but as I got close the sand became ridiculously soft and deep and I dropped the bike a couple of times fighting to keep it moving forwards.

The village was just a collection of farm houses in a smallish area, and inbetween them was bad sand with no obvious tracks to ride on. By now I'd sussed that there wouldn't be "a track" to ride on, but instead I would have to brave a constant maze of paths and choose between them as best I could to keep me moving in the correct direction judged by the sun or by my compass. I didn't stop in the village, apart from to drop the bike in the sand, instead carrying straight on travelling East. I dropped my tyre pressures as low as I dared - 5psi rear, 10psi front - and struggled on, riding the still terrible sand. It was starting to get late in the day as we'd deliberately left Beyneu towards the end of the afternoon to avoid the unbearable midday heat. I was boiling hot, exhausted, and lacking in confidence that I was going to be able to ride the 600km or more of this terrain to get back to civilisation and roads. I dropped the bike again but unfortunately in a rut with the wheels higher up than the handlebars , and I was so tired I couldn't pick it up again. I was probably there for at least 30 minutes, struggling to manhandle the overloaded bike and regain some strength. When I eventually managed to get it upright, I got on and tried to kickstart it only to lose my balance and promptly fell over again but this time on the other side. Now the slope was in my favour, but I was so exhausted it probably still took 5 minutes to steady myself enough to pick it up. This time I forced my sidestand down through the sand before trying to start the bike - Had I dropped it again I doubt I could have raised it that evening without removing all the luggage first. I rode another 15 or 20 minutes, thankfully clearing the section of really bad sand, before calling it a night with dusk already descended. I was so shattered and physically drained I didn't cook or eat anything, nor did I bother putting up the basha to sleep under.

The next morning I didn't feel like having any breakfast, so I set straight off eager to put the previous evenings difficulties behind me. The sand was mostly a lot more forgiving, and I must have rode for over an hour making good progress. The tracks led to several farms, at which point I'd pick another track from the farm which best suited my intended direction. This worked great till I eventually got a farm which had no other tracks leading to/from it. Bugger. I didn't fancy heading back the way I'd come, and it occurred to me there was no way of know that any other track I picked up wouldn't finish the same way. I tried to ask a lady at the farmhouse the way to the next village on my route. She didn't seem to know how to respond so called out her son who had obviously been asleep and obviously also been drinking heavily the previous night. He didn't seem to recognise the name of the village I wanted to head to, but when I showed him the map he spotted a different village and confidently pointed me the way. Probing him further he pointed out a direction to my intended checkpoint, the village of Bozoi, but there was no obvious track of any kind and it seemed he'd just worked out which was the correct bearing to take. The first village, Matai, wasn't quite on the straight line path I wanted to follow, but it seemed like a more likely target for me to reach so off I set.

I was directed to follow what some kind of cattle path which led to a watering hole. I'd hoped that a vehicle track would emerge from the churned up sand, but there was no obvious way to go after the watering hole. With nothing else to do I set off across open desert/steppe riding again in bad sand. There were prickely bushes everywhere, but steering to avoid them in the deep sand saw me sliding all over the place, and of course dropping the bike several times. I had to settle for changing direction as gentley as possible and ploughing through whatever was in my path. The desert here was punctuated by "bowls" or "depressions", which contained the worst sand. I tried to avoid these whenever I could, but accidently straying into a couple meant having to ride out with high revs in first gear, a lot of wheel spinning, and plenty of foot paddalling to try and keep the momentum from failing. I'd worked out that to find a track heading in the direction I wanted, rather than perpendicular to it, I needed to travel in a direction roughly 45degrees from what thought my bearing was. I did eventually get onto a track but after some distance I again found myself at a small farmhouse with no other tracks to take, with exactly the same result.

The sand started getting less soft, the farmhouses more frequent, and the tracks more well trafficked. When I saw people outside the farmhouses I stopped to check if they agreed I was on a track leading to Matai. As far as I can tell Matai wasn't a village at all, but a place, a collection of farms in a general vicinity. There was however what looked like a military station, notable only for a large radio tower. Just near to this I stopped at a farmhouse to work out my next direction. The guys I spoke to were quite clear about the direction I needed to take to get to Bozoi, even though it wasn't the way as the crow flies. I took got a rare photo, but thought better of it than photographing the suspected military post.

I confess to having felt like the last of the great adventurers...

I set off yet again, back on sand so soft it was barely possible to even make out depressions/ruts made by vehicles, let alone tracks. But I didn't get far before I saw soldiers on the path ahead. I of course came to stop next to them, at that time fearing there might be some kind of training exercise blocking the way. A large misunderstanding caused by the inability to communicate eventually resulted in 5 soldiers physically hauling me off the bike, one of them riding it back to the outpost, and me walking back with the other four struggling in the heat and the soft sand. I was physically and mentally drained, I was suffering in the sun and the heat, starting to feel week from not having eaten, and dehydrated from not drinking enough water - I'm not sure what an appropriate amount of water to be drinking per day in those conditions was, but I think 5l was the minimum for me to feel okay and be able to occasionally pee something out.

The soldiers only wanted me to check in with their officer, but I hadn't been able to understand what they wanted, and they weren't able to understand I would happily have done so and wouldn't have just ridden off. The situation worked out massively to my benefit as I got water bottles filled from their well, got a meal and tea in their canteen, and got the way ahead spelled out more clearly. The security concern was actually understandable as we were something like 10 or 20km from the border with Uzbekistan. Being dragged off the bike I'd felt like my trip was going to end terribley right there, but in reality it was this altercation that probably saved it. The next riding stint was following tracks made by big military trucks driving through the desert. It was something like 140km to my checkpoint, and after a guardtower shortly after the military station, I didn't see a single person, vehicle, building, or livestock animal.

I was as worried as ever that I was not on the right track, and I even had visions of coming across civilisation and finding I'd strayed accidently into Uzbekistan. Sometimes there was just one track, other times the trucks had been making fresh tracks on the steppe. In one section of bad sand I came off at slow speed for the first time on the trip, and had to spend five minutes or so wriggling out from under the bike. I also noticed I'd started leaking oil from the cylinder head, but I wasn't going to contemplate looking into that until I was safely back in civilisation.

Dropped bike

Eventually I had a major fork, and I decided whilst there wasn't a lot in that more traffic had been taking the track heading up North rather than continuing straight ahead, North-East-East. Sooner after I imagined I could see something in the distance. After another 15minutes or so of riding I was again at a military station, again with a big radio tower. This was the place I'd been directed by the officer at Matai to head to, though I hadn't known it was purely a military post with no signs of any farms or houses. There was though some kind of gas pipeline, maybe ever a gas field - I'm not sure. At the time I couldn't believe my luck that I'd chosen to turn left rather than carried on straight, but in hindsight carrying on straight would probably have took me to the what's left of the Aral sea. The German BMW rider I'd met in Turkey, Olaf, had described riding this route including riding along the shore of the Aral sea, and I'm a little dissapointed I never actually got to see it. At the time though I was only concerned with making my route safely, and if I can say it without sounding foolish, surviving it.

The soldiers here who came out to see me looked a bit surprised to see me, and made a token effort to write my details in a notebook though I actually had to volunteer my passport to them as they seemed to be content trying to ask me things like my name, then work out how to spell them. I'd half hoped to be invited in for another free meal, but it didn't seem to be forthcoming. Instead I got directed on the way ahead, and now I was on a track following power lines, and I think also a buried gasline. I rode for an hour then decided to stop, eat and sleep. A massive herd of apparently wild horses cantered their way accross the steppe, but I was too tired to even think about making photographs. I cooked some food, and slept beneath the stars.

The next morning I was soon in Bozoi. There was some kind of gas refinery/pumping/whatever facility, and as I stopped outside it one of the worked started speaking to me in English. I was so shocked I didn't even think to ask him questions about the area, instead simply saying hello, complimenting his good English, and asking if their was petrol in this town. There was a small old petrol station, with the obligatory manually operated pumps. They had only 80octane petrol though, and being snobby and under the belief I could get petrol two villages further along the track, I only got the minimum I thought I needed. This was a proper village, with houses in a grid layout with fenced yards, and even a couple of small bits of concrete road on the edges. I struggled to find the track out of town, and whilst exploring a wrong track I got a puncture, the first of the trip. I was actually amazed I'd been able to ride so far on low pressures without problems until then, especially as the Trelleborg tyres I was using seemed to have a thin layer of rubber on the carcass.

I can see why I'd took the wrong track - that counts as a good road in parts of Kazakhstan

A quick tube change later and I headed back into the village, before getting directed onto the right track. I was initially on a good solid track following some power lines, but they vanished into the ground and the track descended into the usual mixed condition, multiple choice sand riding. By now I was really getting the hang of the sand, and the constant bike dropping and near crashes were well behind me. The village of Begimbyet was marked on my atlas as having a petrol station, so my heat dropped when I arrived and found the petrol station long abandoned. I knew I'd made a big mistake in not filling up at the previous village, but with nothing else to do I question a local who seemed want to ride pillion and direct me to the petrol. This was another proper 'grid' village, smack bam in the middle of nowhere, so it wasn't entirely surprising that this guy reeked of booze despite it being lunchtime. Whatever employment the Soviet union had found for these people such as they built a village here, was obviously long gone. One guy meant to have petrol either didn't, or wasn't selling to me. I got took to a lady who did have some, and I got 10l of apparent 92octane for more than twice what I would have payed at a petrol station. The guy who helped me wanted me to stay and drink with him. Now ordinarily I'd jump at the chance to drink with the locals and get an insight into the culture, but it was so hot I could barely force enough water down my throat to keep myself hydrated, and I also picked up a slight atmosphere of subdued aggression in the village (which I felt in most small remote central asian villages to be honest) and didn't think it wise to hang around any longer than I had to.

This should have brought me near to the end of my off-road stint, but one last navigational blunder saw me follow the power lines rather than turning off on a 'main' track leading to the biggest town of the region, Chelkar. After discussing this with some locals at a farmhouse, I headed off accross open steppe one last time. It seems amazing to me, but the people in this area of Kazakhstan must have very rarely visited their neighbouring towns or villages, even if they lived in the middle of nowhere... Sods law dictated just as I found a good dirt track leading the last 10km or so to the road I lost concentration, clipped the edge of a rut, and went flying off the bike. Fortunately I wasn't hurt. I pulled up in Chelkar late in the day, with time to have a quick reccy of the town and fill up the water can before riding just outside the town to camp up for the night.

In two and half days spent out in the void like desert I must have seen at most 10 or so other vehicles driving about. This was the most extreme and testing part of the whole 6 month bike trip, and I can admit to scaring myself a little bit doing it. Even breaking down on a track could potentially lead to death before any traffic would pass, let alone out in the middle of the steppe where there are parts possibly nobody ever goes. I'd hoped to get the bike jet-washed in Chelkar so I could track down my oil leak, but they didn't appear to have running water there. I was paranoid that if I stopped by a local mechanic so I could safely fix my oil leak, I wouldn't be able to explain to them I didn't need them to help and risk breaking something. I fixed the leak where I'd camped - When I'd fitted the replacement cylinder head in Belgium I'd managed to put two washers on one of the head bolts and oil had started to leak out from between them. I also noticed the rear rack which my 'topbox' bolted to had snapped in half at some point very recently, so I had to find a mechanic and get it welded.

Not being able to communicate with the locals was starting to get to me and my moral was at a bit of a low point despite successfully fixing the snapped rack and oil leak. The weather turned really cold for some reason which didn't improve my mood, and then I wasted an hour or two getting lost due to the road layout in reality differing from what I had on my map. Things got worse when first the drysack with my basha and a few other camping things fell off the bike and I had to give up looking for it. And then I lost one of my flipflops as well. Finally I had to give up on my planned shortcut to Astana as that central part of the country looked really wet with lots of lakes dotted about, and whilst I suspected the track marked on the map would still be rideable it would turn into another hardcore off-road adventure. I was starting to come round a boring saftey driven mindset, that riding alone through bad terrain in remote places was going to wind up with me getting into trouble sooner rather than later. The net result was following the 'main road' south down to Almaty, though the first 50km of this main transit route was an off road stretch itself. I think most of the freight in the country is transported by rail as the road network would really not be recognisable to a westerner as a viable means of getting anywhere.

I'd been sleeping beneath the stars since departing from the French group, but now that the weather was not so good I was a little bit paranoid about getting a midnight soaking without anything to keep the rain off my sleeping bag. Fortunately the rain held off and I made it to Almaty without trouble after a couple of days of mile-munching on the now good asphalt road.