Tuk to the Road

The trials and tukulations of Jo, Ants and Ting Tong the tuk tuk and our three-wheeled odyssey from Bangkok to Brighton...in aid of the mental health charity Mind. For more information please see www.tuktotheroad.com

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Kazakhstan we love you

* Please scroll down as have posted three blogs at once - two written earlier but only posted now due to lack of internet. Enjoy.

Apartment on Samal 2, Almaty, Kazakhstan

Yesterday was without doubt one of the most surreal and extraordinary days of my life. After all the sleepless nights, the worry, the ‘would we ever make it’ fears we had, Jo, TT and I made it safe and sound to Kazakhstan, the land of milk and honey we had been dreaming of through all our Chinese tukathon. And now here I am, sitting in our rented apartment, looking out on the Tien Shan mountains, with China already slipping into the confines of my memory.

Yesterday started early, before sunrise. As we hauled our luggage out of the yurt and into Ting Tong the sun was just beginning to stain the horizon orange and cast her golden cloak over the lake and mountains. The odd herdsman cantered past and a group of Chinese tourists looked on curiously as we pulled off TT’s cover to reveal the pink lady herself. But Ting Tong dug her heals in. She didn’t want to leave China either, or more likely, she didn’t like the cold dawn air. For half an hour we tried to start her, but she stubbornly refused. A couple of times the engine wheezed into life for a few seconds, then died again. The next option was to push her onto the road, where there was a slight incline, and give her a rolling start. The Chinese tourists quickly came to our help, and TT was pushed about 30m into the starting gates. What a funny sight, TT being pushed by a selection of Chinese, English and Uigurs against a background of yurts and grazing animals. Then, thanks goodness, our luck changed. A Chinese man – whom assured us he was ‘velly good driver’ – climbed into the cockpit and got a tune out of her. We were off. Of all the mornings Tingers could have chosen to have a tantrum…..

Our last 100 km of China were beautiful. The road wound through the mountains, past beekeepers, herdsmen, brightly decorated yurts and herds of horses and foals. Rarely has England felt so far away.

Then we hit the maelstrom of the border. We did our usual and weaved TT in and out of the queues of coaches to the front of the fray. At once a crush of people closed in on us. Wads of Tenge – Kazakhstan currency – were waved at us, offering blackmarket exchange. Gold teeth flashed and questions were fired at us in Russian. Luckily Jack and TT worked their combined magic and a guard ushered us through the gates in front into the Chinese border compound. TT squeezed in amongst more coaches, a Chihuahua amongst greyhounds, and Jack and Jo went inside to investigate. In no time several Kazakh bus drivers came up to me and starting asking questions, their smiles revealing more mouthfuls of gold teeth. To my dismay I learnt that it was 370 km’s to Almaty on only OK roads. My hopes of our making it that night clouded.

The prognosis wasn’t good when Jack and Jo returned. Hundreds of people were inside and there seemed to be little order to the proceedings. Then once again Lady Luck came to our aid and without really understanding what was going on we were in and out after no more than an hour. A quick, sad goodbye to Jack and we were on our own, and crossing the divide into Kazakhstan, full of trepidation as to what lay ahead. Our first impression was good. A tall, handsome, camo clad soldier with a large rifle slung over his shoulder stopped us and told us where to go, in Russian of course. Upon seeing our confusion he hopped onto the side of TT and hitched a ride 100 m to the next point, truck drivers whistling as we tukked past. More soldiers then pointed us towards the main area and we were let through some gates to where the action was. Since Kazakhstan has been my organizational baby, along with Russia and the Ukraine, I left Jo with TT and with an armful of documents went to investigate the situation.

Inside chaos abounded. A sea of baggage laden Kazakh and Uigur families, interspersed with the odd Russian, jostled to get to the front. It looked like we were going to have to unload all our luggage again (we’d had to do it on the Chinese side) to get it scanned and use a lot of elbows in the process. I went out to Jo and told her the bad news, and we began the laborious process of putting all our things on a huge trolley. By this time a group of intimidating looking guards, all with guns, had gathered round. I answered their questions, told them about the trip, showed them our Russian press release. Laughter and smiles ensued, phew. Then a very tall official with a large badge and Terminator style shades appeared, clearly the boss. What happened next was quite extraordinary. After verbally confirming we had no contraband, our luggage was loaded back onto TT. We were led inside, taken to the front of the heaving throng and our passports stamped, while the guards talked about ‘Beckham’ and ‘Rooney’ with us. The people who had been fighting for hours to get to the front of the melee justifiably glowered at us. Then we were told to drive TT round the side, where, accompanied by the big boss in the big shades we had all our vehicle documentation stamped and verified. The boss asked us if we had husbands, told us about his several wives and children, asked about the trip. He then disappeared off for a few minutes and returned with a bagful of chocolates, cold drinks, a Russian doll and a carved wooden box. Most amazing of all was the fact that he pushed a fistful of Tenge into my hand, and refused to accept any $’s in return. Here was one of the apparently notoriously corrupt Kazakh officials giving us presents and money, about $40. To top it all off, he climbed in the back seat with me and led us the 1 km out of the border area, soldiers saluting him all the way and gates swinging open in haste. We thanked him effusively and he was gone, another guardian angel sent to help us home. What a feeling of relief and happiness swept over us, I felt like crying I was so happy. A few Km’s later we came to the very final border checkpoint, where a group of young soldiers again creased into laughter and asked a barrage of questions about Ting Tong before we were off. What an incredible few hours. Something we had been so fearful of had turned out to be a highlight of the trip. We couldn’t believe our luck and twenty minutes later pulled over beside the quiet country road and just took it all in for a few moments.

I’ve gone on long enough so I won’t write an essay about the 8 hours to Almaty. But we made it. At eight thirty we found our apartment, I rang the doorbell and there was my mother. So lovely to see her and know she made it here safe as well. The drive here was beautiful, lots of donkey carts, huge wide open spaces, mountains, VERY strong winds and lots of waving and gold toothed smiles from the Kazakhs. VW Santana’s have been replaced by Audis, Ladas and Mercs. And Dong Feng’s by the indomitable Kamaz’. Although sad to leave China rarely have I been so pleased to arrive anywhere than here last night, and what a great thought that we’ve got four or five days to recuperate before we hit the road again.

Xx Ants

4 Comments:

Blogger Pestos said...

Great news that you made it OK - I really enjoyed reading this post, your writing style is really on a roll now! Opened the EDP yesterday and to my surprise you were both in there smiling back at me!

2:33 AM  
Blogger heid_honcho said...

good you made it thru.

4:24 AM  
Blogger pip said...

I DID cry when I read this one !!
Wish I was in Fiona's shoes.
Love you both and very pleased there are still some decent people in authority.

8:26 AM  
Blogger tuktotheroad said...

GINGERPOP...hello, Ants here, thanks for your posts. Am sitting here with Fifi Trixabelle and she was wondering if you might be able to get a copy of yesterday's Express as there is an article about Jo in there on the health pages.... would be excellent if you could. Thanks and hope you are both well and doing lots of sailing and having a good summer xx Ants

8:58 AM  

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