March 26, 2020
Kazakhstan is seen by many adventurers to be a transit country at best but Kazakhstan is full of adventure and is now one of our favourite motorcycle adventure countries that we cannot wait to get back to!
For travellers heading East and onward to places like Mongolia and Siberia in the summer months you either stay in Russia or you drop down through Kazakhstan should you wish to head to the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Kazakhstan is usually thought of as a large dry dusty scrubland/desert that doesn't contain much of anything. Borat also didn’t do much to help portray Kazakhstan in a good light too but it is much more than what you expect. Kazakhstan does have it’s fair share of dusty and dry scrubland but it also has vast Alpine mountain ranges too! Also those dry dusty scrublands are a free for all of stunning off road desert pistes that last for ever and the best part, it’s fully legal!
Also Kazakhstan is a big culture shock when coming from Europe. Any of the main roads that appear on maps are not much better than a sandy track and they can be up to 700km long with very little in the way of food or fuel! In this respect you are dropped immediately into true adventure as a motorcyclist and can quite quickly feel a bit out of your depth. Not to mention that in summer it can become so hot it could be down right lethal for an unprepared motorcyclist.
For example you will sometimes come across what once was a tarmacked road, but now mostly in disrepair. These are the surfaces to avoid, potholes make up the road and they are deep so we quickly realised to copy the locals and stick to the sandy tracks on either side of the ‘roads’.
After our time in Aktobe, we headed to Aralsk in the South, where we would finally tackle the Aral Sea, something we had been planning for a long time. We stayed in the first hostel we found in Aralsk and planned to set off riding the Aral Sea the next day, the main reason we wanted to ride this area was to see the famous Ship Graveyard.
The Aral Sea lies between Kazakhstan in the North and Uzbekistan in the South, the name roughly translates to “Sea of Islands” due to the 1,100 islands that were once in its waters. The sea has been shrinking year on year since the 1960’s and is known as one of the planet's worst environmental disasters due to the former Soviet Union's redirection of water in the rivers upstream to be used for irrigating cotton crops.
Only a small briny portion of the sea remains with most of it now reduced to a dry andsandy scrub land. Another unfortunate aspect is that this has brought untold health effects to the local ex fishing population with a steep rise in respiratory illnesses and cancers.
The lost ships
A local told us that unfortunately, it was unlikely we were going to find a ship due tomost in the area being broken down for scrap metal and sold to China. We were disappointed after this chat but decided to still go and check out where the ships used to lie, and we found one!
Well, what was left of it, a chunk of what looked like the keel and some other random parts scattered around. It was completely taken apart just as the locals had warned us but at least we tracked a ship down. So for anyone who wanted to see the Ship Graveyard, you should definitely head to the Uzbekistan side. We know for a fact there are still mostly formed ships if there was enough time we would have ridden back to see them but unfortunately, we need to keep on track to hit Siberia at the right time of year. However, this is something we have already said we are going to do after this trip, explore the Uzbekistan Ship Graveyard!
Baikonur, The oldest Space Port in the World
Our next stop on our way East was the world famous Cosmodrome of Baikonur. Baikonur Cosmodrome was initially built to launch the first ever man made object into space, the satellite Sputnik.
Swiftly following this the Russians then launched the first man into space from Baikonur called Yuri Gagarin beating the competing Americans.
Much of the enormous complex is abandoned due to being in operation for over 63 years. As projects ended the launch pads were left to the scrubland and with a little forward planning we were able to access some of the abandoned pads and find all sorts of interesting forgotten space hardware like parts of rockets and missile nose cones!
The area is very remote and is quite dangerous due to being littered with trenches and collapse and forgotten bunkers and silos. Although we got to experience the area we would not advise people to copy us as you may either end up hurt or arrested!
Onwards to Uzbekistan
From Baikonur we continued along the E38 highway. This is a very long stretch of desert road that is a little boring but imperative if you want to reach Uzbekistan. However towards the end it climbs into some attractive flowing hills and grassland which is a welcome sign after the dryness of Western Kazakhstan!
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