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Smiles, Smiles and more Smiles

We said our goodbyes to Denice at the rather rundown Russian side of the border, passing a burning trash can that added to the decayed ambiance of industrial Siberia and crossed the border into a thoroughly modern Kazakh border station. We rolled up in front of the main administration building and were greeted by a smiling uniformed border agent who ushered us inside and whisked us through the entry processing and had us on the other side in no time flat.


By far the easiest border crossing of the trip so far. We were met immediately by our smiling Kazakh guides, an older gentleman (my age) by the name of Vadim and his much younger protégé Vitaly. Vadim and Vitaly came up and shook our hands and gave us hearty hugs and Vadim stepped back theatrically and joked "Just friends” as if to deflect any homophobic thoughts we might have from the hug. We all laughed and immediately knew we were in for a fun time with these guys.

Vadim and Vitaly hopped into their brand-new Toyota 4Runner and took off for our first stop in the city of Pavlodar. As we left, a familiar pattern emerged that would be repeated throughout Central Asia. The pavement leaving the border crossing or cities would be smooth and maintained for about a kilometer, and then as we got further away and deeper into the desert land between cities, the pavement would deteriorate eventually into an extremely potholed rutty mess or just plain old dirt track, not unlike most of Mongolia.


Hence the need for a brand-new 4Runner.


Another pattern emerged before we pulled into Pavlodar, and that was getting pulled over randomly by the Kazakh police. It quickly became apparent that all of the police were corrupt, and they supplemented their income by pulling truckers and just about anybody over periodically and shaking them down for "traffic fines''.


We ended up being pulled over many times as we crossed Kazakhstan, and every time we would just smile and shrug our shoulders and pretend that we didn't know what they wanted or were saying (which we didn't), and more times than not they would just smile back, shake our hands, want to get a picture with us or sit on our bikes and then send us on our way without us giving them a dime.


Unfortunately, our guides on this first shakedown had to pay a small fine which also ended with smiles and heartfelt handshakes and we were sent on our way with a friendly wave.

We pulled into Pavlodar, a mid-sized industrial city of Russian origins that looked and felt just like the cities we had visited in Siberia with the exception that the people seemed way happier. We settled into our hotel and decided to walk around town and find a place to eat.


We settled on a funky little place that had a facade that looked like a submarine and when we entered it got even wackier with a 50’s-ish space-age motif. It turns out the extremely accommodating owners were obsessed with "little green men" alien conspiracies and decided to make their restaurant an homage to the genre. The food was not bad at all and certainly several steps up from the bland food in Russia and the dreadful food we had choked down in Mongolia.

After an uneventful but long drive through the central Kazakh steppe, our next stop was the city of Karaganda, another industrial city literally in the middle of nowhere, so much so that its name is commonly used in a Russian joke about being stuck in the middle of nowhere. The hotel we stayed in was quite nice and after a dinner and beers at a local, very cool subterranean pub we took a nice stroll along Mira Blvd., Karaganda's central park. The Park was full of light sculptures and quite a sight to behold. So much more life was going on here than in neighboring Siberia.


Our young guide Vitaly was excited to be hanging out with us and was asking us endless questions about life in LA and particularly the music scene. He aspired to be a live concert promoter and wanted to know how hard that was going to be if he moved to LA. We told him to save his money (because he would need it) and come to LA and see for himself. His enthusiasm and happy nature were infectious and we all said we'd help him out if he ever was to make it to LA. He was over the moon with excitement and truly just fun to be around.

The following morning, we got up early and took off for Lake Balkhash, 380 kilometers due south of Karaganda. After another uneventful ride through literally nowhere, we arrived at a strange little lakeside resort. We were seriously tired and checked in and, after watching a lightning storm roll over the lake, took a nap agreeing to meet for dinner.


After dinner in the resort restaurant, which looked like a cross between a HoJo diner and a high-school cafeteria, we walked to the other side of the resort and settled into a place at the bar to watch the NBA finals, which were playing on a TV behind the bar. Vadim came down and was in his usual jovial mood and Mike suggested that we all do shots of whiskey. Vadim declined but Mike was insistent in his usual engaging and hard-to-refuse way, and soon we all had quite the drunk going on and the laughter flowed.

We also met a couple of young guys sitting at the bar who were eager to talk with us but didn't know a word of English. As anyone who travels knows, language is not a barrier and by the end of the evening, we were doing shots with them and found out that they were there on vacation from their mining jobs and that they were married and had young kids, and that one of them was having some difficulties in the marriage and that was why their families weren't there with them. A guy’s retreat to try to sort out their problems.


We bought them several rounds of shots and said now was the time to laugh and forget about their problems for the evening. Not a word of English was spoken the whole night, but after the game finished, and as we left to stumble back to our rooms, we embraced with hugs and handshakes and the camaraderie of brotherly love and thanked each other for the fun time.

We left early in the morning, slightly hungover, and headed south following the endless shoreline of the gigantic Lake Balkhash. We headed to one of Vadim's good friends' places in a fishing village at the southern end of the lake. It took us the entire day following the shoreline to get to the place where we were met by two young guys waiting at a nondescript intersection to take us to the village. We followed them for quite a few miles along a dirt track and arrived at a series of shacks along the water's edge.


There we were greeted by Vadim's friend Jiri, a middle-aged man with an almost perfectly round belly poking through his unbuttoned shirt, which he couldn’t fasten around his girth. The boys who met us were his sons and it turns out that he owned the whole fishing village, which consisted of around a dozen ramshackle shacks, one of which was a small general store. The boys took us up to the store and we bought some beers and our coveted Snickers bars and went back to the house.


Jiri was at the dock with one of his friends baiting up his hook with kernels of corn and dropping his line into the water. He baited up some polls for us and we all sat there drinking beer and fishing. Vadim declared "Life is good,” which became our mantra for the rest of the trip.

We caught a couple of fish and ended the evening with a fish fry and a beautiful sunset over the lake. The color of the sky was a rich amber to purple reflected across a ripple-less lake, and we all fell asleep in a single screened-in room to the sound of frogs and crickets. Mike said, "Goodnight, Tim.” I said, "Goodnight, Mike.”  Nick, Vadim, and Vitaly joined in Walton-family style, and we all laughed. It was the best sleep of the trip.


In the morning we left for a full day's ride to the historical capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty.

Upon entering the city, we couldn’t help noticing how modern and clean the streets were. Everywhere there were colorful signs for the upcoming Pan Asia games that were going to be held there the following month.


We drove straight through the city to Vadim’s Tour Asia office where we had fresh tires waiting for the girls and finally the proper battery for my bike. We then took off for a short hop through the city to the home of the Freedom Riders Motorcycle Club. This was no ordinary MC clubhouse. It was a full motorcycle repair shop, bar and restaurant, and travelers’ hostel. The guys there greeted us at the subterranean entrance to the shop, took our tires and battery, and guaranteed us they would take good care of the girls while we toured the city.


While our bikes were being tended to, Vadim and Vitaly took us to our hotel in a swank part of town that looked indistinguishable from any urban city street in America. We ate dinner at the hotel because it supposedly had a very good restaurant. In keeping with my tradition of sampling local food, as we were looking at the menu I turned to Vadim and asked him to point me to the most traditional Kazakh meal. The menu was in Russian, and I had no clue what I was looking at, so Vadim showed the waiter the dish.


My food showed up and was a decorative platter of meat with noodles. It looked like a fancy version of every meal we had in Mongolia. With lowered expectations, I took a bite and recoiled slightly at the gamey taste of the meat. I asked if it was beef and Vadim looked at me with surprise and told me that it was horse meat, not beef.


I barfed slightly in my mouth and put my fork down. I felt like I had just taken a bite out of Mr. Ed. I made an excuse that my stomach was hurting, and I didn’t finish the meal. We had joked in Mongolia that the meat tasted like a horse, but Ching and Aldar had assured us jokingly that they only ate horses in Kazakhstan, not Mongolia. I now knew this to be true.


The next morning, we headed out with Vadim and Vitaly and took a walking tour of Almaty, which included a cable ride to the top of the mountain that overlooks the city. Besides fantastic views of the city, we came across a small roller coaster built right into the side of the mountain. Each rider got into what looked like a sled on wheels and rails. The whole apparatus looked incredibly sketchy. Mike and I immediately jumped in line while Nick, usually way more of a daredevil than Mike or I, looked at us like we were crazy and said, “No way!”.


As soon as we got in the individual cars I had the sinking feeling that this might not be a good idea. Safety restraints throughout Central Asia were let’s just say non-existent compared to USA standards, so there was just a flimsy shoulder strap and a hand brake that looked like it could maybe stop a small child, not a 200-plus-pound adult male. Nonetheless, we both jumped in and crossed our fingers. To make matters even more sketchy there was no actual operator of the ride. It was set up like a vending machine. You buy a token and put it in the car which released it for operation.


The ride itself was quite thrilling and once we got rolling, I was so captivated by the incredible views that I forgot completely about any danger. Mike and I both wanted to immediately do it again but Nick, Vadim, and Vitaly wanted to move on.


Back in downtown, we stopped off at the central market. This was a major feature in all of the large Silk Road cities and the one in Almaty was gigantic. We passed stalls containing mounds of spices, nuts, dried fruits, milk curds, and cheeses. There were stalls dedicated to medicinal herbs, essential toiletry items, meats and poultry, and most disturbingly horse meat and horse products. Everything could be found in abundance there and the place was packed with shoppers.


Later that night we went back to the Free Rider Bar because Vitaly had arranged for us to watch the NBA final with a bunch of his young friends. They brought out quite the spread of food and beers flowed. The game started and it quickly became apparent that Vitaly’s friends had zero interest in the game and were more interested in hearing stories about our travels. We on the other hand were jonesing to watch some finals action so there was a tug of war for a bit before we gave up on the game and dove into conversation. We all had a blast and we ended the evening talking with some other motorcycle adventurers from Denmark who were also having their bikes serviced at the shop and were staying at the hostel.


The next morning we got up early and met Vadim and Vitaly at the motorcycle shop to pick up our bikes. This was our last time with Vadim and Vitaly; they would be staying in Almaty and we would travel by ourselves to Taraz and then on to the border of Uzbekistan. We would dearly miss both. They had great senses of humor and we could tell they liked just hanging out with us. The feeling was mutual.


We headed out of the city and into the desert following the mountains that separated Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan. Something felt strange with my bike. It felt like the back wheel was not tracking properly with the front wheel. It was a subtle feeling and I chalked it up to uneven weight distribution with my bags and rode on and adapted.


We pulled into Taraz at the end of the day and somehow found the hotel after getting slightly lost. We were on schedule, and we were going to make the border crossing into Uzbekistan the next day, which had a very limited time window for entering. Our whole journey and many mishaps and delays across Mongolia threw making this date into question.


Nick and I also checked out that weird feeling I was getting from my bike and discovered that the back wheel had been put back on at a slight angle and that was causing the strange off-track feel. We wouldn’t realize until much later that this misalignment had caused the oil seals in a section of the chain to rupture, which over time caused the affected chain links to seize and run noisy. If we had stopped right away and discovered the problem, we could have possibly saved the chain, but I had ridden all day in the desert heat. It wouldn’t be till we got to Turkey that we would be able to have a permanent fix.


We settled into our hotel and went out into town to find a place to eat. On the way, we noticed that we were being followed by two young men in military garb. We paused and let them catch up to us and one of them in a very stern tone asked us for our IDs and papers. We looked at each other, surprised and worried, because we hadn’t taken anything with us from the hotel.


We told them this and they both broke out in big smiles and told us that they were just joking and that they just wanted to meet us and find out where we were from. We chatted with them for a while, mostly about basketball and who we thought was better, Kobe Bryant or MJ. We asked them before they left where a good place to eat was. They pointed to a café a couple of buildings down and told us that the place had great pizza and beer. We thanked them and went to chow down.


We got back to the hotel and collapsed in exhaustion. We felt relieved that we were going to make our date at the border, and we also couldn’t believe that we’d made it this far. We had only been gone a month, but it felt like a year. We slept well and deeply that night with big smiles of satisfaction on our faces.

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