Kazakhstan

[This post continues directly from our previous post on Uzbekistan.]

Monday involved a whole lot of driving. Our original plan was to reach Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, but somewhere along the way we decided we’d rather camp somewhere out bush now that we’ve finally reached the more sparsely populated portion of our trek.

The scenery through Kazakhstan so far has varied quite a bit. Leaving Shymkent, we started out driving through a valley between distant snow-capped mountains. After we left the mountains behind, we were passing through vast, flat plains of scrub. This felt strangely like being back home – the kind of sparsely populated countryside that I’ve become very familiar with seeing all over Australia.

Unlike Australia, in Kazakhstan you’ll regularly find sheep, horses, donkeys and cows just straying over the unfenced road. Sure, that’s something you sometimes see in Australia, but we’ve been seeing it in Kazakhstan on a main road joining two cities. There’s also plenty of animals wandering around the small towns we’ve passed through. Once again, like Australia, the distance between towns has started to get quite large, and the actual towns have started to get a lot smaller than previously. Unlike Australia, we’ve started to see people living in large canvas tents – yurts. So we’ve kind of achieved our “Perth to Yurt” goal. Of course, we’ve still a long way to go before we get to Mongolia, and a long way to travel within Mongolia to reach Ulanbator from the Russian border.

In general, Kazakhstan has been completely unlike what I was expecting. The terrain has been similar, but this first section to Almaty at least has been more populated and had much better roads and facilities than I was worrying about. People here have seemed a bit less friendly enthusiastic about the foreigners in their midst, too. The crazy waves from other cars, petrol station and restaurant staff excited to talk to us even though we don’t have any language in common and people in villages gawking at us have all stopped. Perhaps so many Mongol Ralliers have passed this way that we’re no longer a novelty? Maybe the Kazakh national attitude is more like the Scottish and they don’t trust strangers? Who knows.

There’s also been a bit of a change in attitude with the police we’ve encountered. In Romania we were being pulled over to make sure we weren’t lost (often we were lost). Starting in Iran we found the roads had regular police checkpoints; but mainly we were being pulled over because the police were curious and wanted to chat with us despite lack of a common language. In Turkmenistan we were pulled over because the cops wanted to give us grief for whatever ridiculous reason they could come up with (usually speeding while being foreign). In Uzbekistan we were asked if we were okay and if we needed directions. In Kazakhstan they’ve so far just wanted to see our documents and wave us on.

Kazakhstan is also the first time we’ve seen petrol station attendants with guns. Not a particularly encouraging sight.

On Monday we were a bit concerned that the main road to Almaty might pass through Kyrgyzstan because, well, both of our maps show that it does. (Presumably the road was built back in the USSR days where there was no border to cross.) There were a couple of possible minor roads that allowed us to zig zag along the border, but it was hard to tell if one or the other might result in us travelling hundreds of kilometres over dirt tracks – our maps don’t indicate sealed vs unsealed roads. Fortunately, just following the signs to “Almaty” ended up taking us over one of these roads, which was a bit bumpy but that didn’t stop us from doing 110 km/h trying to keep up with the crazy German team (Splendid Spendobels) in front of us. When we stopped for fuel the German driver, Wolfgang, said to me something like “ah, that felt like proper rally driving!” At some point on this route we also lost all of our hub caps.

The temperature has also cooled down a bit, which has been a very welcome relief. It now feels like a Perth spring day and the sky is a beautiful blue with occasional clouds – not quite as nice as the vivid blue you see in outback Australia but much nicer than anything we’ve seen in Western Europe. Couldn’t possibly ask for better weather. The drop in temperature has also allowed my bow tie to make a come-back, for the first time since eastern Turkey.

Monday night we set up camp around sunset in the Kazakh bush, a way off the main road. This also provided an opportunity to survey our food supplies and try to cook something for dinner. Patrick discovered some tinned meat we bought in Hungary. The tin looked like a cat food tin, the picture of the meat inside looked like cat food, and when opened the meat inside smelled like cat food. Patrick was adamant, however, that it wasn’t cat food. Cat food was much more expensive than this Hungarian delicacy. To go with the Hungarian mystery meat we had some pasta, pasta sauce and onion. I suggested it might be an opportunity to make a vegetarian meal, but Patrick was having none of it. To be fair, once fried and smothered in pasta sauce, the mystery meat was quite edible. Tasted a bit like sausages. Personally, I’ll be glad to be back home and able to be vegetarian once more.

After a nice sleep in and spot of brekkie (for me: a cup of instant coffee made with Tesco-brand guaranteed super-British UHT milk; for the others, muesli and Tesco milk), we hit the road once more. In the passenger seat I had the opportunity to squint at maps, plot our course through Kazakhstan and Russia to the Mongolia border and verify our distance calculations. It turns out that when preparing our itinerary we’d underestimated the distance we’d have to travel through Kazakhstan by about 1000 km, but since the roads on our North-South route were decent quality tarmac instead of the horrible dirt tracks we’d been warned about by people who’d crossed Kazakhstan from West to East, we were ahead of schedule.

On top of this, we had about 2000 km less to travel through Russia than our original calculations suggested. Just as well because our itinerary had us travelling something like 900 km per day through Russia, which would be somewhat more than we’d been able to achieve so far. So according to our new calculations we’ll be hitting the Mongolian border two or three days earlier than originally expected. This is good, because our vague guess of being able to make it from the border to Ulaanbaatar in five days would place us, according to the guide provided by the rally organisers, up there with the fastest to ever to make the journey.

Tuesday saw us drive straight through the city of Almaty and out the other side again. A little while after leaving the city, I was pulled over again by the cops. This time they attempted to explain that I’d been doing 60 km/h through a 50 zone, and had my headlights off which is apparently illegal in Kazakhstan. As a result, they wanted 100 of the United States’ finest dollars from me. I showed them my international driving permit, my passport, all the forms I’d obtained at the Kazakh border, and feigned incomprehension at “one hundred dollars”, instead explaining to them loudly in English (which the didn’t really understand) that we were Australians driving from London to Mongolia, with lots of gesturing. After a couple of minutes they told me to go away.

We stopped for dinner at a pub in the town of Taldyqorghan. While we were looking at the menu in blank incomprehension and trying to guess what the different items might be, someone at a neighbouring table came over to assist. His name was Erlan and he spoke quite a few words of English – more than the waitstaff – and better yet, had a translation app on his phone. The items we’d been guessing where main meat dishes turned out to have been salads. The main meals were what we suspected might have been deserts. Whoops! Thanks to this assistance, I ordered some lamb, Patrick got some chicken and Adon chose shishkebabs. After we ordered we stayed chatting to him, attempting to explain our crazy journey and the route we were taking. Erlan’s son Dulat also joined our table briefly. Dulat spoke good English and was, if I recall correctly, studying international trade at university.

After dinner it was time to drive some more. The plan was to drive a couple of hours down the road towards Semey, the town nearest the Russian border. An hour into the drive we got an SMS from the Splendid Spendobels who we’d been convoying with on Monday, asking where we were. Apparently they were sipping drinks in a bar in Usharal, which was a bit further than we had originally intended to travel travel. After a brief team meeting – Adon and I saying “let’s do it” and Patrick saying “not another late night!” – we decided to ignore Patrick and keep on driving through the night.

At about 1:30am we reached the point which I’d thought was the right town, but it turned out my navigation was off and we still had another 50 km to do. We reached the town the Germans were staying in a bit after 2am, only to find that the hotel – the only hotel in town – was completely chockers. Tired and dispirited, we left and drove for a bit longer until we found a dirt track through some scrub. where we set up camp.

No rest for the wicked, so on Wednesday at 9:30am we woke up and by 10:30am we were moving again. We stopped at the first service station along the road in the hope of picking up some water. Unfortunately, petrol stations through the Stans haven’t been as well stocked as Australian roadhouses. Most had no credit card facilities, and many – including this one – sold nothing but fuel. The attendant expained in Russian or Kazakh that the next available water was 90km along the road.

After driving for a couple more hours, we passed the Splendid Spendobels, stopped by the side of the road having a polite chat with some nice policemen. We tooted and drove past them, then pulled over to wait for them at the next convenient spot. This brief section of road was so badly potholed that even Wolfgang was forced to drive slowly. When the Germans arrived a few minutes later, we had a chat about our proposed route through Russia to the Mongolian border.

The route that I’d picked out on Tuesday was through main roads, but not particularly direct. The Germans had found that there was a minor road through some mountains, present on only one of our two maps of the area, which allowed us to shave off 600-800km from the journey. This seemed like a good plan to us; even if we had to drive slowly we’d end up ahead, and minor roads were likely to be more interesting than major highways. With that decided, we set off in convoy with the Spleandid Spendobels, aiming for the Russian border and beyond.

At the town of Oskemen, not far from the border, both the Germans and ourselves managed to independently get lost. When the Germans eventually un-lost themselves, they had some bad news: the border crossing we intended to us was closed. Our revised plan was to take the crossing near Shemonaikha, half-way between the one we’d originally planned to use at Semey and the one which was closed.

Because it was now getting quite late, we decided to stay the night in Shemonaikha and asked some local chavvy-looking youths for directions to a hotel. They took us to a place which was unlit from the outside and we would have guessed to be an apartment block rather than a hotel, where $40 purchased us one night in a room for three people. Not bad!

Thursday morning, we crossed into Russia in convoy with the Spendobels. The Kazakh side of the border was amazingly efficient and took about 15 minutes to get through. The Russian side, on the other hand, took a few hours. But we made it, and by precisely lunch time-ish, we were in Russia.

Yours until we meet again, dear Internet,

Cameron.

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