Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Almaty: embassies and petro dollars

12'137 km

After a long detour through Russia, under rain and bitter coldness (7 degrees in Barnaul), we crossed Kazakhstan north to south, 1200 km of mostly good but boring roads. And west to east is even longer, this country is huge (and amazingly empty, just flat steppe). The closer you get to Almaty, the better the roads (and the weather).

Reaching Almaty itself is a shock, instead of the big, dark, dull soviet city I was expecting (as in Russia), we hit a very modern and plush city, on a par with most European capitals. The occasional run-down Lada which accompanied us throughout Russia and the northern country is now as bizarre as if we were in Geneva or Milano. It's solid Mercedes, Audi and BMW, with brand new SUVs all over the place. Amazing. The petro dollars are flowing like it was an Arabic country, and it seems they're looking for ways to spend all this unexpected money. Also quite a change from Semey in the North, where everything is old and dusty, factories are abandoned.. but then it's also near the place where the Russians were testing their nukes (460 detonated, many in open air..), so that's not too sexy.

Now our plan is to stock up on visas for the next leg to India, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan (1 down, 3 up..) and find out how we'll cross these huge mountains to Pakistan and India. There are basically 3 options:

- Tajikistan - Afghanistan - Pakistan. The most straightforward, straight south, and not so dangerous in Afghanistan. But then the rumors are that Khyber pass is closed to foreigners (crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan). So that would rule it out.

- Kyrgyzstan - China - Pakistan. This is the trickiest in term of red tape because of China, but then it is possible. We just have different conflicting stories about whether we need a guide to ride in China, how much it costs, etc..

- Uzbekistan - Turkmenistan - Iran - Pakistan. Quite a long way around Afghanistan, and now Turkmenistan is closing down their border during October, so that's another no-go.

We met 2 Englishmen on BMW 1200GS who already spent 4 weeks here, waiting for new tyres to come in. They're also trying to figure out a way into India, so we met and discussed the options. They want to enter China mid- to end of October but that sounds pretty late to me to cross a 4600m-high pass! for this reason, they also plan a backup plan with a truck to haul the bikes all the way to the Pakistan border, on top of Khunjerab pass. But then of course you'd have to hitch a Pakistan truck down the KKH..

Then Anders wants to challenge his Chinese contact, who already made us a very expensive proposition that we had to turn down. And there is also this Swiss couple who hired yet another Chinese agent to make it through China. So now we have to sort this out and make a plan.

While we're waiting for our visas we don't even go shopping or bask in the sun on a terrasse, we have some mechanics to do: we need to find new chains for our bikes, they wore out really quickly in the last 2000km, so it probably won't make it to India. We already have had 2 propositions, one for 270$ (not sure what kind) and another at 330$ for a brand new nice chain. We're still looking for something cheaper..


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