Learning to love the 'Stans

stans 1

It wasn't Igor's size that made him intimidating, being made more of beer than of muscle. Instead, it was the way every person in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, would bend over backwards to make sure Igor went away happy, even the police. I guess that’s the level of respect you command when you’re a well connected crime lord in a remote backwater famous only for Soviet-era nuclear weapons testing.

Igor manhandled a heavy black bag into the back of the 4x4. It was about the size of a human body. Dave and I exchanged a nervous look. Igor shuffled by in his flip-flops, passing our pair of XT600s and what was probably the only BMW HP2 Enduro in Kazakhstan, and rooted around in the cupboards at the back of the garage. He returned to throw three more items into the car. A blow-torch. An axe. A chainsaw.

Was this getting weird or was it our imaginations running wild? Igor’s hospitality and last night’s partying had been epic but what the hell was going on now? I’m sure I’d seen a shovel in the boot before the body bag went in...

Yesterday we’d stood here laughing while Igor showed off on his HP2, popping wheelies past the compound in his customary shorts and vest, but his fearlessness was now causing more concern than amusement. He motioned for us to get in the car and we obliged, fearing it may be impolite to say “No thanks, we think you’re a criminal”.

He gunned the engine, and as we pulled away the big iron gates at the rear of the compound automatically closed behind us. At least he hadn’t told us to get in the boot. We turned onto the highway and began heading out of town.

“Massage my head, bitch”. Fortunately this was directed at Yulia who sat behind Igor. Igor spoke Russian I couldn’t understand, but from his tone that must have been what he’d said. Yulia was girlnext- door pretty, about 20 years old to Igor’s 40-something. Just one more perk of being a drug baron. Yulia obediently began massaging Igor’s bald head.

We turned off the highway into the car park of a mini-market and stopped near another expensive 4x4. One of Igor’s friends raised a hand in greeting. Igor spoke to him before approaching a kiosk selling unrefrigerated fish under the blazing sun. Something changed hands, and my imagination told me it was drugs.

Another car with blacked out windows arrived and joined us to form a convoy that sped past the decaying remnants of communist industrialisation and on into the countryside.

Yulia was singing along to the Russian bubble-pop from the radio when Igor suddenly turned off the potholed tarmac and the 4x4 lurched onto a dirt track leading into the woods. It quickly got dark under the canopy, and any visual link to civilisation was lost. I looked at Dave, and Dave looked at me, still not quite sure whether we should be thinking “Oh shit....”

Whatever happened next, I couldn’t regret how I got here. When I first read Jupiter’s Travels and decided to ride around the world, I didn’t even have a bike licence. Cue five years of learning to ride, on every terrain. Now in the second month of riding all day, being on the bike felt natural, like standing on my own legs. I knew every vibration. It was my home, my transport, everything I owned. And it was giving me an experience of a lifetime.

I remembered three weeks earlier, when we’d been in Kyrgyzstan under a vivid sunset, camping in a grassy area with views across the river valley. Pasta for dinner, this time with wine, the first since Georgia. It was Angelina Jolie wine. It was disgusting. Thick, sweet and dark red, with Angelia’s smiling face on the label, and a claim of 17% alcohol on the back. All the wine round here had celebrities on the labels. Eva Longoria, Jessica Alba. I suspect it wasn’t an official endorsement.

Thunder made us retreat to the familiar comfort of our tents, to watch rain and lightning across the wild landscape with a plastic cup of wine and a bar of weird tasting Uzbek chocolate. In the darkness, a horseman and his herd of horses came by, paused for a while, then whooped and yelled before galloping off. His shouts and the ghostly shadows of his horses were yet another reminder that we were now in a very different culture.

The roads in Kyrgyzstan were as stunning as the unspoilt countryside. The most fun I’d ever had on a bike came when we rode up a mountain pass like the Stelvio on dirt. At the summit, as I sat disassembling Dave’s carburettor again to dislodge the muck, parts spread out over a plastic hi-viz survival bag, a solitary eagle swooped and called overhead.

Days later and we were in Semey, which was full of mismatched buildings in a worse state of decay than the roads leading there – it was grimy and Soviet. Whereas we didn’t want to leave Almaty (the girls were astonishing), we genuinely feared we might never get out of Semey. Smoke billows from industrial units that look like prisons and an acrid smell fills the air, but fortunately there are wide highways cutting across the dystopian horror, if you can avoid the aggressive drivers.

We’d planned to find a hotel, but in a quick roadside conference we agreed to just get the hell out and camp. Thirty seconds after setting off, we saw a hotel sign on the roof of a building that looked new so we changed plans once again, and pulled up at some tall iron gates.

I pushed the button on the intercom. Nothing. Then an old woman appeared. Short and fat, with an apron and a headscarf, she carried a sweeping brush made from twigs. She said something in Russian, to which we offered our default reply: “English?”

“What you want?”

It was more like telling us to get lost. “Hotel?” I suggested.

“What you want?”

She waved us away with her sweeping brush.

Then Igor and Yulia arrived in a Landcruiser, the gates opened, and Igor gestured for us to come into the compound. Igor didn’t speak English but gave us a tour, showing off his BMW HP2 in the garage. The place seemed brand new, the rooms looked like they’d never been used. Upstairs there was a bar, a billiards table, a sound system and a massive home cinema screen on the wall. We realised that this wasn’t a hotel, it was Igor’s party pad, and a front for something a little less honest.

The luxury of the place was very welcome. We weren’t just given cold beers, but shown where the fridge was so we could help ourselves, and the beautiful Yulia sat with us and used her laptop as translator.

That evening, Igor put on a party for us, with Yulia and an assortment of friends. We were treated to pizza, vodka and beer in a room that was labelled “restaurant” but was clearly just the place Igor did his entertaining. And probably his dealing. Igor showed us his motocross photos, we showed our trip photos. The vodka flowed freely, each glass downed after a toast. Music played, we shared a shisha pipe [the traditional way of smoking tobacco in the Stans – Ed], the laughter was continuous. After a while the vodka became too much for Dave and me, but our hosts had only just started and carried on early into the morning.

The next day we found ourselves hurtling out into the countryside down dirt roads through fields and forests, stomachs churning from the excesses of the previous night, minds racing with paranoid expectations.

We arrived at a river and started to realise that we weren’t being brought to the slaughter, but to a picnic. This was not normal behaviour for a hotel owner towards his guests, but was somehow “standard for the Stans”. Still, I kept a close eye on Igor as he pulled the tools out of the car.

When the chainsaw burst into life, the people at the next clearing glared over to see who the hell was disturbing the peace, but quickly sat down when they saw Igor. The axe and chainsaw were used to cut down a tree and the blowtorch to start a fire on which to roast chicken for our picnic. That’s just how they do things in Semey.

Dave and I could only laugh when Igor opened up the “body bag” and produced an inflatable boat complete with outboard motor. Cue an afternoon messing about on the river, beer glass constantly refilled, our host thrusting food into our hands. Igor always seemed to have a litre can of Baltika on the go, and the pile of empties grew rapidly. We feasted on chicken, all the while trying not to let Igor catch us admiring Yulia’s perky personality.

The further you get from home, the friendlier people are. You set off with suspicion but as you travel you come to understand that most people want to make friends. Tajik children will run across fields to say hello. Hotel owners will invite you to park in their lobbies. Parties will be laid on. Russian farmers will give you bread instead of kicking you off their land. People will go out of their way to help you, and you have to be open to it.

Soon we’d be in Mongolia, then Siberia. We were having the time of our lives.

RIDER >> ALASTAIR TODD
BIKE >> YAMAHA XT600
DISTANCE >> 7000 MILES