Tag Archives: tandem on train

Lake Burabay to Almaty 27 to 31 August 2012

We’d been beginning to feel left out….we’d heard so many stories of other travellers having to pay ‘fines’ or ‘supplements’ to ensure their paperwork was correct and yet there we were travelling along relatively smoothly and beginning to wonder if it was all an exaggeration of some outdated stereotype.

But we can now report that we have officially been fleeced by the migration police. You may recall from the last blog entry the difficulty we’d had in getting our visa registered in Petropavlovsk, where they initially refused to register us and said we’d have to pedal a further 200km to Kokshetau, and how grateful we were when they agreed to grant us a 10 day registration that would see us through to Astana or perhaps even Almaty.

Imagine our surprise then, when we went to register in Astana and the official, who spoke perfect English, told us that registration was FREE, that we should not have paid any money to the police in Petropavlovsk, and that they should have automatically registered us for the full 30 days of our visa and not the 10 days they graciously allowed us. So, at least we now have a genuine travellers’ tale to tell and can report that corruption is indeed alive and well in the rank and file of Kazakhstan officialdom, and we can no longer complain of being cheated of the complete Central Asia experience.

After posting our last blog entry (through cunning and sneaky methods to get round the block on WordPress that seems to be in place here) we realised that we’d have to make haste to Astana as although our registration lasted until 31 August, there was a bank holiday on the 30th and the registration office was likely to be shut on 30th AND 31st. So we decided to take the shortest route, along the boring, but beautifully smooth-surfaced main road. And luck was on our side with a strong tailwind. We sailed along at 30+kph and got to Astana early on 29th August. Our first stop was at the train station to see if we could get a train to Almaty that evening, but they were fully booked so we booked ourselves on the 10am train on the 30th, to arrive in Almaty at 6am on the 31st. So that meant we’d a) need accommodation that evening in Astana, and b) definitely need to register our visas in Astana and not wait until Almaty.


The guest rooms at the train station were expensive and could not accommodate the Pino, so we approached one of the several people outside the station who were advertising rooms. The lady we approached was one who had previously handed us her card when we’d been locking the bike before buying the tickets and had seemed friendly enough albeit perhaps a little eccentric.

Oh deary, dear though. We really must get better at judging people. Alma turned out to be as mad as a box of frogs! At first we put the confusing communication down to the fact that our Russian is really not very good, but after a while it dawned on us that our landlady was excessively garrulous and incoherent even to other Kazakhs, but by that time we felt we’d wasted so much time with her we needed to stick with the decision to just get the room sorted so we could go and get registered, which we absolutely HAD to do that day as it would be too late by the time we got to Almaty.

NOT our apartment block in case you were wondering.

So, after much confusion and debate about where the bike would be stored (eventually in our 5th-floor apartment and not in the outdoor public car-park that Alma initially had sold to us as a secure police-guarded park) and many spurious side-trackings on topics that we did not understand and, indeed, suspected had scant relevance to the business in hand, we agreed to take the apartment and asked Alma for the address which we would need to give to the migration police. Matters got even more frustrating at that point when Alma insisted she would need to come and register us as our landlady. We suspected this was not the case, but our knowledge of the intricacies of Kazakh visa registration were insufficient to be positive on this point, and in any case it would have taken more than our feeble protests to deter Alma from her mission to be as helpful as possible to us. So, instead of hopping on the Pino to nip into town we had to take a taxi with Alma to her apartment to pick up her passport and paperwork (and also to allow her to change her top and hat to another combination as mismatched and odd as her original attire) from there we proceeded to the migration police where Alma, after dawdling and digressing all morning, suddenly became a whirlwind of anxiety and barged through the crowds to pick up the forms she insisted she needed to fill in for us. Six attempts later we were surrounded by torn up paper, Alma was muttering and mumbling and seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and Keith and I were wondering how on earth we could take the situation back into our own control. Finally, forms completed to Alma’s satisfaction, she whirled off through to another room to hand everything over to the officials. A few minutes later she returned in high dudgeon, ranting something about us having tourist visas, and then disappeared again back to the officals whilst we stood dumbly waiting. Eventually she called us through to speak to the official, who spoke perfect English and enquired how we knew Alma who was making no sense at all. We explained we had just met her and were renting an apartment from her for our stay in Astana. The official took our passports and told us to return in 15 minutes. Alma threw a complete hissy-fit at this and stormed off to get herself something to eat and drink, trying also to drag us along with her. We refused to go and instead waited for our passports, which were returned to us as promised along with a printed out form completed with all our information, which we simply had to sign and that was it, job done. We went to pay the official and at that point discovered we’d been fleeced in Petropavlovsk.

Norman Foster designed Khan Shatyr

In a blissfully Alma-free state and with all our paperwork complete, we were tempted to make our own way back to the apartment then and there, but decided we’d better wait to see if Alma re-appeared as we weren’t entirely sure if she’d understood we needed her to check us out of the apartment at 8.30 the following morning. She returned within a few minutes and we got another taxi back to the apartment where we tried to arrange for the morning’s key return then get rid of her as quickly as possible so we could go sight-seeing in what little remained of the day. No such luck. We first of all had a big argument about passports – she wanted to hold on to ours as security until we returned the key and we were under no circumstances prepared to relinquish them to her insane care – matters were eventually resolved when we wrote down our names and passport numbers and a mobile phone number (my UK PAYG one that doesn’t work here). She then tried to convince us that we must go to the train station together as she was sure we needed a separate ticket for our baggage and Keith had to be very firm in telling her that if there was a problem it was our problem. She then insisted on coming up to show us the workings of the flat (windows open and close, taps turn on and off, TV has a remote control…..nothing unusual or idiosyncratic in any of these items), and then, despite our increasingly impatient responses to her babbling, tried to drag us to the nearest shop so she could help us buy food. Despite our insistence that we’d been managing to buy food for ourselves in strange countries perfectly well for the last four months it was incomprehensible to her that we might be able to manage to do it by ourselves. We had by this time been in her mad and maddening company* for about 5 hours and despite our continued pleas that we wanted to go sight-seeing and thank you but we were quite sure we’d be able to manage on our own, in the end Keith had to be rude to her to by opening the door, cutting her off mid-sentence and saying firmly “Goodbye” in Russian. Eventually she left but it took us both quite a long time to feel calm again.

View from Khan Shatyr of the HQ of state energy company KazMunayGaz

Anyhow, craziness over and done with, there was still sufficient light in the day to go and see the sights of Astana. And what sights they were!

Bayterek Monument

Gleaming bronze, gold and green skyscrapers glittered and shimmered in the evening sun. The imposing block-shapes of fortress-like, Soviet-inspired buildings sat in sharp contrast with the futuristic curves of the Norman Foster designed shopping centre. Skyscrapers leaned quirkily like books on a shelf. Golden minarets nestled in a strange harmony amongst the mish-mash of classic colonnades, sleekly curved glass expanses and pagoda-style roofs. The city is barely twenty years old, and the newness lends it an energy, a feeling that anything is possible, and this energy and the diverse cultural heritage of its inhabitants are reflected in the extraordinary mix of architectural influences exhibited by its buildings.

The next morning we were dreading meeting Alma, but she seemed to have calmed down a bit and apparently bore no grudge against our rudeness the night before (if indeed she’d even registered it as such). We escaped her presence with relative ease and made our way to the train station to start the now familiar process of working out which platform we’d be on and how best to get the bike to it. As in Yekaterinburg there was no fixed platform, but luckily Astana only has three platforms, and platform one was occupied by a stationary train, and platform two and three were actually just different sides of the same platform, so we found the crossing point and wheeled across to await the train there (having already removed the chain linking the front and rear cranks, the front seat handles, both sets of pedals, and reversed one of the front cranks). It was still a mad scramble to complete the separation and wrap everything up when the train arrived and we could see where our carriage was, and once again we were reliant on the kindness of our fellow-passengers to accommodate all our belongings, but we’re getting the hang of it now and because we know what to expect the process doesn’t feel quite as stressful.

The journey itself was fairly uneventful, aside that is from my clumsiness whilst trying to clamber into the confines of the top bunk (we’d been allocated two top bunks). I was poised half-way up trying to work out how best to complete the manoeuvre in the absence of any grab rails that might assist one as vertiginously challenged as myself, when either the train swayed or my lack of co-ordination and balance overwhelmed me – the truth will never be known and isn’t really important as the outcome remained the same. One minute I was lightly remarking to Keith that it wasn’t as easy as it looked and contemplating my next move, and the next I was slipping through the air, thrashing madly and searching in vain for a foot-hold to step down to. Luckily the girl sitting in the adjacent seat kindly broke my fall a little (I hope her head is not too bruised) and I was uninjured but mortally embarrassed when my ass hit the floor. For subsequent ascents I misused the table as a step and ascended securely using adjacent bunks as hand supports rather than trying to clamber up the short end of the bunk using the step provided. Of course, instead of politely pretending it hadn’t happened, all the other passengers had to rush up the train to make sure I was all right, pat me on the head, and thus complete my mortification. Oh joy! Really, cycling is so much safer than setting foot on any form of public transport.

Crossing the steppe en route from Astana to Almaty

We are now staying in Almaty with Tas, an all-action, mountain-biking, adventure-racing airline pilot who is insisting that Keith enters a mountain bike race later this week (not on the Pino!) and threatening to take us mountaineering. I am drawn by the beautiful snowy peaks surrounding Almaty…..but can’t help but wonder if it mightn’t be safer for me to stay indoors with a good book.

*(the ‘mad and maddening’ phrase has been lifted directly from Keith’s diary – it just sums up Alma perfectly but I can’t take credit for it myself)

Yekaterinburg to Omsk 12 – 17 August 2012

Another train ride, a trip to the circus, some wonderful Siberian hosts and applications for Kazakh visas.

Once again, we have let the train cover some kilometres for us and 10+ days worth of pedalling disappeared in a 12 hour overnight train ride from Yekaterinburg to Omsk.

Oh it sounds so simple doesn’t it?  We had cleverly (or so we thought) booked our tickets in advance online whilst in Perm, but when we got to Yekaterinburg there was an email waiting for us saying the transaction had not been processed as there wasn’t enough space on the train, so the first thing we did the next morning was to hot-foot it to the train station to see what our options were.  We started at the information desk and had a pretty good conversation (in Russian) to establish that there was a train slightly later in the day than the one we’d initially tried to book on.  So far so good.  The helpful lady wrote the train number and time down on a piece of paper and we headed to the ticket desks.  Keith went down the lines looking for the youngest ticket-seller on the assumption that a younger person might speak some English.  No such luck. And not only did we get someone who spoke no English, we got someone who had clearly not been employed for her people skills.  She refused to make eye contact, ignored our questions (apart from the one about the bike which resulted in a definitely negative response), barked demands at us and basically did nothing to hide her disgust at having had the misfortune to have such pig-stupid foreigners at the front of her queue.   As a result, despite having clearly asked for a ticket for ZAVTRA (tomorrow) we ended up with two tickets for CEVODNIA (today).  We discovered this just a minute or two after leaving her charming presence and had to go back and queue again and then get the ticket changed – you can imagine how delighted she was about that, especially when it took us quite a lot of gesticulating and dictionary-flicking to satisfy ourselves that the first tickets were being refunded onto our credit card and we were not being charged twice.  At last it was all over and we had our tickets in our sticky mitts, although not one for the tandem as we’d had on our Nizhny-Kazan train.

Our couchsurfing hosts in Yekaterinburg had left to visit friends in the country by the time we got back to their home so we spent the day doing some washing and catching up with things on the internet.  After five fairly hard days riding it was nice to relax and go nowhere for a day.

The next day we decided to do something touristy….but what?  On our travels through Russia, one thing that’s struck us has been that every city has a permanent circus venue.  Other artists may use the stage from time to time, but the circus is the predominant show.  We couldn’t think of a single similar venue in the UK.  To our mind a circus is a travelling affair that is housed in a big top or occasionally in a concert hall like the Albert Hall.  But in Russia, it seems a matter of civic pride for a city to have a dedicated circus venue.  And so, to the circus we went.

Yekaterinburg Circus Tigers

Even parrots can pedal!

Admittedly, apart from a couple of trips to Cirque du Soleil, neither of us have been to a circus in years, so perhaps we’re not really best placed to compare Russian with UK acts, but there definitely seemed to be more animal acts in the Russian circus.  We have mixed feelings about these.  The animals looked to be in excellent health, and some of them seemed quite content to be performing, but others….I don’t know….it just felt wrong.  There were horseback acts (mostly very good), dancing dogs (so bad it was ridiculous), cats that span fiery poles with their feet whilst strapped onto their backs, and hitched their way along between two poles, rumps dangling and poles under their armpits, (wrong, wrong, wrong), bicycling parrots (pretty cool) and thirteen tigers which were poked and prodded into jumping through a fiery hoop by the same man who’d conducted the appallingly bad dog act.  We were willing the tigers to have their revenge on him.

Don’t try this at home kids

The human acts, on the other hand, were without exception excellent: jugglers, clowns, acrobats, trampolinists and dancers with a variety of acts that inspired, amused, terrified and entertained.

After the show, we treated ourselves to a meal out  and then pedalled round Yekaterinburg, which had a relatively clean and tidy feel to it (for Russia that is).  Then it was back to our hosts’ apartment to pick up our luggage and head to the train station.

Keyboard Monument in Yekaterinburg

After the rush to get the Pino packaged and onto the train back in Nizhny we made sure we arrived at Yekaterinburg station in good time: two hours ahead of departure.  Our train was a through train, travelling from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk – a journey of over 4200kms – and we would be hopping on board for only 1000kms of its journey.  It would stop in Yekaterinburg, but we couldn’t tell where as unfortunately the platform number was not being displayed and no-one could tell us which platform it might go from as, unlike at Nizhny, the trains at Yekaterinburg did not have regular platforms.  We dismantled as much of the bike as we could (brakes, pedals, handles from the front seat) but needed to keep it mostly intact so that when the call came we’d be able to push it to the appointed platform.

The train was due to arrive 29 minutes ahead of its departure time so although it would be tight we should still just have time to get to the platform, split the bike, dismantle the trailer, and wrap everything in ‘plonka-stretch’.  But to tighten timings further, the only way to the platforms was along an underpass and up some steps….not ideal.

Keith went exploring and at the very far end of the very long platforms, discovered some level crossings, separated from the main street by a gate that was chained shut, but the padlock through the chains was not fully closed.  He went to the nearby guardhouse, explained about our bike and asked if the gate could be opened.  Once the guard realised Keith knew that the padlock was not actually locked he gave in and said it’d be OK to push through, so we did, and I then returned to the station to await information about our train.

With about 40 minutes to go there was an announcement.  Our train was delayed and would not arrive until about 12 minutes before it was due to depart.  Noooooo!

With 14 minutes to go until departure time, the platform number for our train finally flickered up on the information board and I sprang into life to sprint up the steps and all the way back along the platform to gasp ‘platform two’ at Keith….at which point we realised that platform number two was the only one of the seven platforms that was inaccessible from the level crossings.  Things were not going to plan at all.

We had to haul the bike down the tracks and over some points, and had just got it up onto the platform when the train arrived, along the tracks we’d just been walking on.  Of course, our carriage was then down at the far end of the platform so we had to hurry along as best we could, with Keith weaving the Pino between the throng of other passengers all trying to find their own carriages, until finally we were in the right place and could start dismantling and wrapping the bike.  There was no way we were going to get it all done before the train left, so with seconds to spare we chucked everything through the doorway in a semi-wrapped state and hopped on board.  Thankfully our carriage attendant was really friendly and quite happy for us to do this.  We finished wrapping everything and then went down to claim our bunks….which turned out to be ones against the long side of the carriage, which are the ones with the least storage space.  We couldn’t even fit the trailer on the shelf above the top bunk, let alone the bike.

Our friendly fellow passengers came to our rescue though and those travelling with less luggage quickly offered their shelves for our use so in the end our kit was spread around three other shelves as well as our own, and at last we could relax.

Trust us, travelling by train is not the easy option.

We arrived in Omsk the next morning and, with a 40 minute stop on the platform, unloading our belongings was a much less fraught affair, especially as our couchsurfing host, Marina, met us on the platform and immediately set to work guarding our belongs as we jogged up and down the carriage fetching our many and varied packages.  We had unloaded and got the bike unwrapped and reassembled by the time the train continued on its way to Krasnoyarsk, more than a thousand kilometres further east .  Russia is so mind-bogglingly vast: even our own modest train ride had taken us into in another time zone from the one we’d left in Yekaterinburg and we had to move our watches on an hour.

Marina had bought us some maps of Omsk, and explained that her apartment was too small for our bike, but that her friend Tanya had kindly said we could stay at her house, a few kilometres north of the city.  Marina hopped in a taxi and we pedalled, and met her an hour later in the rural little village of Pushkina.  She prepared us a delicious lunch of potatoes and salad (fresh from Tanya’s garden) and we spent the afternoon chatting and filling in our Kazakhstan visa application forms.

Siberia (where Omsk is) has proved to be surprisingly warm and we sat out in the garden until late into the evening waiting for Tanya to get home from work.  Unfortunately we had arrived during a busy period so she did not get home until long after 10pm, and would be leaving the house early the following day too, but she still found the energy to sit up with us and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

The next day, we were all up early (although not as early as Tanya who was long-gone) and Marina caught the bus with us up into Omsk and accompanied us to the Kazakh consulate….for which we will be eternally grateful to her.  We had a number of questions we needed to ask before we could complete the forms, as things like a temporary address in Kazakhstan are not easy to provide if you’re an itinerant cyclist.  Luckily, the man at the consulate said we should just put down the name and address of any hotel and that we didn’t even need to have a booking confirmation, so that was a relief.  However, he wasn’t so happy that we only had a Moscow-registered Russian mobile phone number so Marina gave him her number as our contact number in Omsk.

Keith and Marina looking lovely in Omsk

We then went on a guided tour of Omsk with Marina showing us the sights and sounds and selecting, for our lunch, the most perfect little eatery.  We were in the local administrative district, and a door into one of the buildings had the sign ‘cafe’ on it.  Upon entering, we found a plain but tidy little room of tables with a screened off area at the far end.  Marina led us down to the screen and behind it was a small canteen.  We grabbed our trays and ordered soup, meat, vegetables, salads and a drink, and to our astonishment, our three meals (OK, Marina wasn’t as greedy as us and just had salad, but even so…) came to just 300 roubles, about £6, ie the kind of price we’d struggle to find just one person’s meal for at any of the other cafes we’ve been in.

The reason for the excellent price was the location.  Ministers and government officials enjoy cheap meals.  So now you know, if you’re in a Russian city and want a cheap lunch, keep your eyes peeled for cafe signs in the government areas.

Feasting with Tanya and Marina

That evening, Tanya was able to escape from work a little earlier and we had a sumptuous feast out in the back garden of pasta, vegetables, salads and shashlik, followed for dessert by Keith’s summer pudding.  We’ve enjoyed every minute of our time with Marina and Tanya, and enjoyed some really interesting conversations with them about all manner of things, particularly their first-hand recollections of life in Soviet times which we found fascinating.

Sharing the Pino experience

Our visas would take a few days to process so we headed off the next day and Marina said she’d call us when the visas were ready.  We’d read about a monastery 55km from Omsk in the village of Achair, on the Irtysh river, and so we headed in that direction.  On the way we stopped to buy some wine and a few extra provisions, and whilst Keith was shopping I was befriended by local inebriates, Tatiana and Olga, who insisted on generously sharing what remained of their morning vodka with me.  Olga then went into the shop and dragged Keith out to ply him with vodka too.  To facilitate a friendly exit from the slightly surreal and increasingly nerve-jangling circumstances Keith gave Tatiana a spin on the Pino by way of a thank-you, and we were able to get on our way with smiles all round.  It’s always hard to know how situations will pan out when people have a morning’s worth of vodka in them, but thankfully Olga and Tatiana were decent enough behind their raucous demeanours.

We found a lovely spot to camp on the banks of the Irtysh about 10km before Achair, sharing it from time to time with some fishermen, who paid no mind to us, and we liked the site so much we stayed there for the whole of the next day, just relaxing, reading, labelling photos, writing the blog and tweaking a few bits and pieces on the Pino.

Marina texted to say our visas were ready and we arranged to go back to Omsk to collect them the next day (Friday) and to spend one last evening with her at Tanya’s before setting to the Kazakh border.

On the Friday morning (today) we rose early to take a quick spin up to the Achair Monastery that was mentioned in our guide book.  To be honest it was only really worth the trip to meet the little old nun who looked after the Pino for us (by hiding it under some rugs and an old coat) and who gave us some bread and cakes as we left.  We then put a bit of a spurt on and covered the 53km into Omsk in 2hrs20 to get our visas.  The Kazakh consulate is open 9.30-12.30 and 16.00 -17.00 Mon, Tue, Thu and Fri.  We arrived at 11.30 and handed our passports over.  We were then given two forms and directions to the bank where we were to pay our $40 each for our visas.  Off we trotted.  In the bank, the first person we saw asked us things we didn’t understand and then moved us over another desk to be dealt with by of her colleagues, who didn’t ask us anything, but spent a lot of time entering our details into her computer and preparing a further 6 forms.  We then had to take these to another desk and hand over our money, and then return to the first desk to get yet more forms which took back to the Kazakh consulate.  We were back at the consulate by midday, but there was no-one at the counter.  At 12.25 the man finally appeared, took our forms, handed part of them back to us and told us to return at 4pm for our visas.

So…we’re not quite there yet, but are feeling quietly confident that we’ll soon be on the road to Astana.

Update:  We’ve got our Kazakhstan visas.  Happy faces all round!