Earlier that morning I’d had a three hour detour around an impassable stinky bog, that at a different time of year might have been classified as a slow moving river. But now I was clear of that mess and was on the open Kazakh steppe, occasionally on single track but mostly on no track at all, riding through rocky foothills and blasting recklessly across flat stretches. I was loving life, going fast and hard in a nice rhythm with the bike. The sun was out but the air was nicely cool. There was no wind. This was how I’d imagined it, so many months ago, sitting on the floor at home with maps spread everywhere in front of me.
Moments like this, every person should know the freedom and joy of motorcycling, combined with the thrill of exploration and discovery in vast, unrestricted open lands.
The next three hours were riding bliss. No tracks, just the expanse of Kazakhstan as I rode into late afternoon. Around 3 PM I realized I hadn’t seen a single person since early morning when I’d fueled up in Bayanauyl, some 200 off-road miles ago. Looking down at the GPS, I further realized that I’d passed into Semipalatinsk, a.k.a. the Polygon, which was the primary venue for the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program during the Cold War.
I rode for a few more miles, came across some of the bunkers used for testing, and my imagination began to wander. My brain struggled to comprehend where I was and how I’d come to be there. For the first time, I started to feel rather unnerved by this self-imposed situation.
To be clear, it had nothing to do with the fact that hundreds of nuclear weapons had been detonated in this area. Between 1949 and 1989 there were 456 blasts in this 18,000 square kilometer region. As a result, Semipalatinsk was the only area I’d vetted on my entire route, and it turned out that knowledge was a fine weapon against ignorance. No, I wouldn’t glow after being there for just a few hours. No, my hair wouldn’t fall out. No, I wouldn’t get sick from radiation, nor would I be sterile. Yes, there were scientists living and working in the region almost year-round.
So, no, it wasn’t the fear of battling two-headed lizards that had me disconcerted; it was the staggeringly absolute isolation. Sure, the Sibirsky Extreme is a route that purposely shuns civilization, instead serving up regions of this planet which have no peer for solitude and remoteness. And while I’d already encountered some such areas in Russia and western Kazakhstan, this eastern part of the country was like nothing I’d ever seen. I usually rank the Australian outback and west Texas as my gold standards for Nothingness, but I’d rate this above both of those places.
One of the many questions I get when traveling alone is, “Don’t you get afraid, all by yourself?” Sure, when I’m introspective (dumb) enough to let myself think about it, and it doesn’t help that I have an over-active imagination. This huge expanse of barrenness forced some contemplation, and my mind rapidly conjured a lengthy list of What If’s. No cell service. Nearest emergency services several hundred miles away, no warrant to their competence. No villages or farms in sight. Injure myself or get stranded out here, and it’d be a pretty serious pickle.
Yup, I was scared.
I’ve discovered, over time, that most people don’t have a way of dealing with Fear. They’re far more content to avoid it and succumb to it, than they are to force a showdown with it. True to my contrarian nature, and being somewhat headstrong and defectively combative, I like me a good gunfight. So instead of bringing the Suzuki to life and riding like blazes out of there, I got off the bike to embrace the emptiness.
Like any activity that seems less and less a good idea the more you consider it, compartmentalization is paramount. Being a test pilot, racing the TT at the Isle of Man, ordering fish tacos in Tijuana, space exploration, dating a Sicilian woman, or solo riding in remote corners of Asia, extensive scrutiny results in scolding yourself for a serious lapse in judgment. I thus set about the proper reorganization of my thoughts.
Perversely, I’d probably been hoping for this precise moment, hoping that I could find a place on earth so isolated, so remote, so ominous, so desolate, that it would challenge my ability and oft-stated desire to be as far away from people as possible, and therefore completely unsettle me.
I got what I wished for.
Whatever anxiety I was experiencing, and in between my quickened breaths, I was feeling rather pleased with myself for having ridden to such a locale near the dead center of the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility. Still, I dusted off some Frank Herbert and reminded myself that, well and truly, Fear is the mind-killer. Appropriate, I thought, that this Kazakh topography was not unlike a certain desert planet, minus the sand worms, so I formally and quickly rechristened this region as “Arrakistan”.
I also find courage in the deeds of explorers and adventurers from ages past. Lindberg, Earhart, Norgay, Hillary, Muir, Gagarin, Armstrong, Cousteau, those heroes had faced far greater dangers with far fewer resources than me. After all, I had a functioning motorcycle with plenty of gas, a working GPS with plenty of battery, and the ability to ride and navigate out of this place.
I knew all of those things, they were the bedrock of how I’d found the nerve to embark on this endeavour in the first place. That, and a sidearm of Emerson: do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.
These ruminations took a grand total of about three minutes, and I successfully returned my mental state to its cozy setting of compartmentalized obliviousness. Satisfied, I strolled about this distant edge of the Polygon, poking around the bunkers and enjoying the absolute silence, save the occasional bird song. After 45 minutes I wrapped up my visit with a bottle of water and a bag of cashews.
Climbing aboard the DR-Z, I checked my compass, got my bearings, and picked out some distant foothills to use as a visual waypoint. Somewhere out there, 150 miles to the northeast across trackless grasslands, a one-star Kazakh hotel beckoned, and the sun was getting low.
Reaching for the ignition button, I paused for the briefest of moments, and then grinned. Reliable as always, the bike fired right up, and I motored away.