Our mission to Lake Tenghiz
20th July Tengiz Lake (North Kazakhstan, the middle of nowhere)
On our last morning in Balkash we headed to the local market. On the way I purchased a pair of bright pink sunglasses, which really don’t suit me and Ants purchased a pair that look cool, but also make her look a bit like a fly i.e. very large. The market was more how we imagined a local market, with women selling their fruit, vegetables, cheeses and kumis (fermented mare’s milk that tastes of bile). The men sold the meat and a Kazakh man dressed in nothing more than a towel around his waist chopped up a cow carcass with a huge axe. We bought some fruit and veggies, goat cheese and some honey- surprisingly costing 2 quid a jar. The women mostly had various numbers of gleaming gold teeth and their hair was back combed on top of their heads with a small hat. We were accosted by a local woman who wrapped her arms around Fiona and then me. We gave her a small amount of money and she later returned for more cuddles. I had earlier seen a man rummaging through the bins outside and so I bought him some salad to eat. Compared to the market in Almaty, this place was cheaper and far more relaxed e.g. they allowed us to take photos, rather than a security guard telling us to stop.
We left Balkash and drove north to Karaganda. The steppe became less monotonous and was replaced by more lush grass, rugged hills to our east and west and on a couple of occasions large groups of horses grazing. Ants and I both thought the scenery looked like Tellytubby land and I expected TinkyWinky to pop up and say ‘Eh-Oh’. TT cruised happily at about 60mph and we enjoyed the drive much more than we had the drive to Balkash from Almaty.
We stayed the night in Karaganda and were led to a hotel by a kind Kazakh guy in his van- we had no idea where we were going and had asked for directions. He also helped us to check in and managed to haggle the price down a bit. Kazakh people rock. As we drove through the town people were beeping and waving at us. Most of the time this is good fun, but sometimes people pull up within a couple of feet of us and try to chat or take photos, often when a big Kamaz truck is bearing down on them in the opposite direction. It gives us flashbacks of China and trucks trying to make a TT sandwich. We dragged our bags to the fifth floor as the lift wasn’t working. Then we decided to go out to supper and asked a taxi driver to take us to a nice restaurant. We ended up at an expensive Belgian restaurant, which had a strange fusion menu of Kazakh mixed with Greek mixed with Belgian. I had a Belgian waffle with chocolate sauce for pudding and it was the best waffle I have ever eaten. The plate ended up being licked, much to Ants’ amusement and I ended up looking like a toddler after their first birthday party. My parents would have been ashamed of my behaviour. Just as we were about to go to bed, a guy that had chased us to our hotel earlier in a white Merc burst into our room at gone 11pm and asked us to go for a drive and drink beer with him and his brother. He got out our map of Kazakhstan and tried to draw our route on it. We asked him to leave as politely as possible, because he was only been friendly and trying to help us.
The next morning (yesterday) Ants had a three hour headache trying to upload some photos. It takes at least 20 minutes per photo and even with Image Shack it still takes ages. We need to find a Russian Photo Shop equivalent to sort out our photo issues and then we can post loads of photos on our blogs. We left about midday for Tenghiz Lake and the Khurgalzhino Nature Reserve. Everything was going smoothly until we got totally lost in a big Kazakh city. There were absolutely no signs and everyone told us different directions. In the end we found the right road and drove 130km down a reasonably well tarmaced road and the got lost again. We ended up in a random town at the end of a very long road and unfortunately asked a local drunk for directions. We didn’t initially realize he was drunk until he had hopped into TT and got us lost again. Ants asked him in her best Russian to get out of TT because he was pissed and we asked some children and a local family for new directions. They explained the way and we set off back down the road we had come down, fortunately only for 4km before we turned off onto the right road. We had to drive 45km and the road deteriorated to large clumps of mud and some stones. The road wasn’t bad enough to really slow us down and TT cruised along at a sedate 30mph. The sun was starting to set and we wondered if we may have to camp for the night. Eventually we came to the entrance of the nature reserve and were told it was too late for us to enter. We felt like crying and I tried to think of something sad so that they may feel sorry for us. Instead I just ended up laughing at the situation- we were in the middle of nowhere 50km from the nearest form of civilization, the sun had set and it was 9.30pm. The man on duty at the gate said that we could sleep in his hut, but we didn’t really want to because it smelt of sheep. We were desperate to get to the lake and after a few walkie talkie calls with the director we were allowed to enter. A short 8km to the guesthouse was all we had to manage before hopefully finding a bed for the night. However, a Kazakh 8km is like a Chinese 8km and this means double it and add 5. Eventually we saw lights in the distance and finally arrived at our destination. Our bed for the night was a small log cabin by the lake with four beds crammed into it, plus a fridge and a TV. We eventually got to sleep after a very tiring evening, relieved to have arrived at all.
I slept like a log last night and apparently my snoring was not too intrusive. I slept in the bed furthest from everyone else, with my head near to the door and I tried to stay awake for as long as possible to let everyone else get to sleep. We woke up to a beautiful day, hot and sunny with not a cloud in the sky. This was a pleasant change, because everyone in England is having the hottest summer on record and the weather in Kazakhstan has been more like an English summer i.e. drizzle, sometimes sunny, mostly cloudy and not that hot. We had heard that there was a beach 8km away, so after a lunch of stale bread and some salad we headed off in TT across the steppe. I was driving and within a couple of hundred meters had successfully got TT stuck in a muddy ditch. I didn’t think the puddle was so muddy and TT had here rear right wheel totally stuck and no amount of pushing or pulling could extract her. We saw a Lada driving over and out got a Russian with a moustache and large belly. He attached TT to his Lada with her dressing gown cord (i.e. rope that we secure her silver cover with) and after him revving and me revving TT shot out of the ditch and onto dry land. I began to doubt whether trying to find a beach was such a good idea. After that we drove at a maximum of 20mph and Ants hung of the side to tell me how to avoid any future hazards. We though we had found the beach after about 5km and parked TT in the steppe while we went to investigate. What we found were mudflats which we proceeded to walk across to try and reach the lake. The mud was hot, black and smelt of sulphur and we soon sunk above our ankles in it. Ants squeaked as something had wriggled between her toes and he hastily returned to the safety of dry land. We carried on driving and were sure we had now found the ‘real’ beach. We had a little paddle, but abandoned any hope of swimming because there were loads of midges and Fiona got bitten twice by a horsefly. Oh well, at least it was an adventure and it was great being in such a remote and desolate spot.
When we got back we ended up being invited to join three men enjoying a feast of vegetables, pasta, rice, horsemeat and of course vodka. We opted to just have drinks and out came the vodka. I pretended to drink mine but didn’t really, Ants had three large glasses and Fiona had one. One of the men was a Kazakh Korean who was a Dr from St Petersburg (random) and he pulled out a magnifying glass and looked into Ants’ and Fiona’s eyes. He then walked around the table and squeezed Fiona’s tummy. He looked at my scars and proclaimed that he could rid me of them in three days. After our brief meeting with our new friends Ants felt quite tipsy and decided that she would crash out after I refused her challenge to a game of badminton. When it was a bit cooler we had a short game and squeaked and grunted our way around a makeshift volleyball court, watched by all the local men. Tomorrow we are heading to Astana where we leave Fiona and then head to the Russian border. I hope the food improves otherwise I will turn into a piece of stale bread.