The rocky road to Russia
22nd July, a wood in the middle of nowhere, NW Kazakhstan
We left the peaceful Lake Tenghiz and headed back towards Astana. We woke to clouds and temperatures normally experienced during an English summer. During our 12 days in Kazakhstan the weather has generally been a bit on the pants side. Our guidebook warns that Kazakhstan at this time of year is uncomfortably hot e.g. 36C and above. I think they might be talking about a different country, because bar a couple of beautiful sunny days it has been cloudy with drizzle and a few sunny spells. We stopped off to get petrol and food on the way. At the shop we bumped into Nikolai, the dude who allowed us into the park at 10pm the other night. He met us with huge smiles and asked to come back to England with us in TT- this is quite a frequent request. He wanted me to get together with his 18 year old son and when I told him I was engaged he suggested throwing the ring away and marrying him instead. Next was the petrol station, my least favourite hangout in Kazakhstan. The petrol was 50% more expensive than anywhere else. We got the feeling we were being ripped off, but perhaps the remoteness of the station pushed up prices, although I am not convinced. There were lots of very pissed locals there and they decided to join in the fun of TT’s mealtime. I think we only lost about 10% of our 10 litres to the petrol forecourt this time. One of the locals then decided to hide our keys, which he finally produced much to our annoyance. We got in TT and drove off quickly, because the men were all a bit drunk and creepy.
During the drive back it started to rain and the wind produced strong gusts reducing our speed from 60mph to about 45mph. We eventually got to Astana and ferretd out a hotel that seemed like a ripoffski for what it was. Apparently the hotel prices in Astana (the capital) have skyrocketed over the last couple of years and so we were reluctant to search around to save a few dollars. A grumpy old man tried to get us to park TT in a secure gated compound, but the guards there made us wait outside for over 20 minutes in the rain, before refusing us entry. Some friendly men from Azerbaijan tried to help us, but the gates remained firmly shut. So, poor TT ended up being parked on the street outside the hotel watched over by the old man.
As it was Fiona’s last night she kindly took us out for supper. We picked a local Russia restaurant and enjoyed a mixture of salads, chicken (not for Mr Ant as she is vegetarianski) and mushrooms with cheese. During supper we were serenaded by a group of men who looked decidedly un-Russian or Kazakh. It turned out they were Indian and sung beautiful Russian folk music while flashing us their gleaming gold gnashers. I think they have been in Kazakh awhile and picked up the local fashion.
Up this morning and we had decided to change our route and head out of Kazakh north west rather than north, because we were informed this was the main road towards Europe and the roads would be better. Also, this took us nearer to our first city in Russia, Chelyabinsk. The roads started off OK, although the condition was not as good as the road from almaty to astana. The wind was quite strong and we were slowed down by over 20mph, cruising in forth at just under 40mph. This was very frustrating as needed to cover just over 750km to get to the city nearest the Kazakh border. I optimistically thought we may have entered Russia today- not a hope in hell.
We stopped for lunch at a roadside café and pulled up next to a wedding party. They spotted TT and came over to have a photo shoot with her. The bride was wearing a flowing white gown and TT made her look even more stunning. We went inside the café and ordered a pretty basic lunch: tomato salad, fried eggs, macaroni and bread. I bet you’re jealous when you guys in the UK are probably enjoying Pimms and BBQs- bastards (only joking). The waitress was hunched over and in tears during our whole meal. We workied out she had really bad period pains, went to TT’s medical kit and gave her some paracetamol. Hopefully they helped a bit.
After lunch the wind continued to gust and the roads began to deteriorate. We both started having flashbacks of Yunnan in China. Still, striaght perfect tarmac can get a bit boring after awhile. We soon realised that we didn’t have a hope of getting to our intended rendezvous point. So, right now we are in a wood sitting around a roaring campfire. We have had some samphire (sea asparagus picked at Lake Tenghiz by Ants and Fiona), tomatoes and bread. I have managed to burn myself on a hot brick and our tent is erected and ready for us to crawl into. Hopefully we will not be disturbed by drunk locals or wild animals and any sleep would be a bonus. Tomorrow we continue towards the border and hopefully this time tomorrow we will be in Russia. I cannot think of a more perfect way to spend our last night in Kazakhstan. I had better let Ants do her blog now, as she is half way through a bottle of vodka.
I nearly forgot a couple of things so I will add them now. Three is the magic number and if to prove it I was stung today three times by small bees. Kazakhstan is a multicultural country e.g. we started our campfire using a Chinese sanitary towel and Swedish fire stick, we drank Russina vodka, TT is a Thai tuktuk and our tent is from Korea. We have witnessed some amazing sunsets, particularly over Lake Tenghiz and we have been priveledged to see birds of prey hunting in their natural environment. That’s all folks…..xx
A wood somewhere in NW Kazakhstan
The camp fire is burning, an orchestra of insects is keeping us company and Jo and I are camping in a wood in the middle of not quite sure (no)where. Since there are only about 3 trees in the steppe, this is quite an achievement in itself.
This trip has been a series of ‘I can’t believe its..’. It has progressed from ‘I can’t believe we are actuually doing it’ through ‘ I can’t believe we are in Thailand…I can’t believe we are leaving today…I can’t believe we are in China…through China…in Kazakakhstan’ and now finally ‘I can’t believe we are about to hit Russia’. As I have said before, time has never passed so quickly.
This time tomorrow evening, we will (hopefully) be in Russia, in Chelyabinsk to be precise. It seems like yesterday that we were celebrating our passage into Kazakhstan, and the minute we get used to it we are speeding out the other side, in the flash of a gold tooth. Each day Jo and I are so engaged in driving, navigating, blogging, filming etc that sometimes the future springs upon on before we are fully aware it has arrived. Russia is a perfect example. The day before yesterday saw us frantically extracting the Russian Lonely Planet from TT’s lock box and invetsigating what lay ahead. Lots of vodka it seems. When I was writing the route page for our website on a cold winter’s afternoom in February, it felt like we would never actually be driving along the far off roads that I was writing about. I remember eulogising about the ‘fabled Urals’ and wondering what it would be like when one day we arrived there. That day is now only thee away. Amazing.
Our approach to a new border is always accompanied by a certain amount of trepidation and wonderment. Have we got all the correct documentation? Is everything in order? What is waiting in store for us? We have got used to every day being a mystery, but borders are a different kettle of fish. Hopefully Russia will be as easy as all the rest and tomorrow night we will be happily ensconced in Chelyabinck, eating Borscht and (me) swigging vodka. Before you get the wrong idea by the way, I’m not descending into alcoholism, I’m just partial to the odd cockle-warming voddy.
The last few days, like all our time in Kazkahstan, have been a surprise. Our last night with my mother was spent in the capital, Astana (originally meaning ‘capital’ in Kazakh) where we dined at a hilarious Russian joint called Egorkino where the waitresses were garbed in 17th Russian peasant gear and the music was provided by a motley crew of gold toothed Indians. Classic. This morning it was time for Jo and I to finally strike off solo, and leave my Ma for Russia and home. Tears were shed and we sped off west towards Kostanai, with little idea of how far we would get today but just a desire to get as far as we could. Thanks to terrible roads and TT swallowing pot-holes we now find ourselves in the only wood in NW Kazakhstan. And having felt rather unsure about camping it has turned out to be an absolute delight. As the sun set and burnt the steppe gold and orange, we tukked into the wood, erected the tent in a masterly fashion, whipped up a fire and settled down for the night. Now, as I type, Jo is gathering fire wood and a kestrel is crying overhead. Camping isn’t so bad afterall. Thank you Charlie for the excellent Trangia cooker, and Nobby for teaching us how to light a camp fire with tampax and a Swedish fire still on our survival course in March.
Back to the camp fire and onwards to Russia. Xx Ants
July 23rd, Kostanai, north west Kazakhstan
Well we didn’t make it to Russia today (Sunday) and tonight Jo, Ting Tong and I find ourselves in Kostanai, a big town in NW Kazakhstan, a hop, skip and a jump away from the Russian border. As we sat round the camp fire last night we didn’t think for a minute that we would be spending another night in Kazakhstan, feeling sure that today would see us crossing the border at Troitsk and tukking onto Chelyabinsk.
On Friday night, in Astana, we got talking to Nurzhan, a handsome, expensively dressed Kazakh. Jo and I had been sitting in the bar of our hotel poring over the map and deliberating our best route to Russia. Since we were racing against time to beat the expiration date of our Kazakh visa, we were after the fastest route possible. It was either north to Petropavlosk or north west to Kostanai. Nurzhan strolled into the bar, and as is customary here, immediately struck up a conversation with us. Being a native, we felt sure he could advise us of the best route. After a short period of careful consideration he pointed towards Kostanai. “Zees one ees best I think, zis is the main route to Europe, ze route all the big trucks take from Russia and Germany”. Since the road was encouragingly called the M36 and cut an impressive red line across north west Kazakhstan, our decision was made. The M36 it was.
Cut to 18 hours later, where Jo and I are driving along this Central Asia – Europe superhighway. Its a single lane track across corn fields and we have’t seen a car for two hours. Kostanai is another 350 km’s….at 8pm we decide we haven’t a hope in hell or heaven of reaching civilization by nightfall and set up camp in our little copse.
I’m not the best of campers. I love the romantic notion of being in some beautiful spot, at one with nature, the stars twinkling overhead, waking up to the sun rising over a meadow of flowers. But the reality is somewhat different – a cold, sleepless night spent terrified the local axe-murderer will come and finish you off. Last night, however, was excellent. Yes it was a little cold and no we didn’t get much sleep, but it was so much fun camping in the middle of our wild wood at the end of the earth, and warming our mitts round a blazing camp fire that I’m willing to gloss over the minor discomfort. So it was with high spirits that Jo and I tukked out of our sylvan shelter at 8.30 a.m today. Having been freezing all night, we were both attired a little strangely. Jo in her Yi apron – of course – and me at the wheel in two rugs and my sleeping bag. Just as we emerged from the trees, with Jo running beside TT to guide us out, a truck drove past and we were met by an ‘Am I seeing things?’ look from the quizzical driver. What a funny sight we must have been; a pink tuk tuk and two very odd looking girls emerging from the undergrowth early on a Sunday morning.
Our high spirits soon evaporated when the reality of the road became apparent. For two hours we saw not a single car. The road, dotted with sporadic signs to Yekatinberg in Russia (800 km hence), was cratered with HUGE holes. Moroever, the sky was an angry mass of low black clouds and an ill wind was buffetting Ting Tong in an alarming manner. All we saw were flocks of black crows taking off in fright as we tukked past, and the occasional herd of horses. No houses, no cars, and no people. Just as we were becoming concerned about our petrol situation and I was wondering if this road really went anywhere, a town appeared in the distance. As we drew closer I could see that the houses were derelict, the windows mainly smashed and the roofs full of holes. It must have been abandoned. I began to get the feeling that this whole area had been abandoned with the collapse of the USSR, hence the hideous disrepair of the road and the antiquated signs to Yekatinberg.
I was wrong. As we drove through the edge of the town I saw an old babushka hobbling along the street, and a bashed up old Lada creaking along. More surprisingly, we were able to find petrol, where the prices on the rusted pumps were still in roubles. The whole place was really eerie, neither of us could believe that people actually lived here, in this desolate, windswept corner of the steppe. It felt like a ghost-town, with people clinging onto the shreds of civilization. I wondered what life must be like for the inhabitants. Judging by the shelves full of vodka in the local store escapism is a popular choice. (The average life expectancy for men here is 58, mainly thanks to alcohol abuse). My oh my seeing that place made me appreciate how lucky we are in our cosy little western lives.
Lunch was a classic. Jo and I stopped at the only café we’d seen for hours and extricated ourselves from Ting Tong, both still wearing our ridiculous outfits. For some reason Jo’s Yi apron never ceases to make me cry with laughter, it must look even funnier to a bunch of Russian truckers in a roadside café. Our hair was standing on end from all the wind and we tripped into the café in a flurry of ponchos, rugs, aprons and sleeping bags. Whether it was the apron , Ting Tong or our English charm, we quickly befriended two truckers, who’d seen us on TV in Almaty. When we asked for the bill they very kindly insisted on paying and off we went.
After eight, freezing, windy hours we arrived in Kostanai. Neither of us expected to experience such bitter weather in Kazakhstan, even though we are just south of Siberia here today was a chilly reminder that TT sure aint a cold weather car. Tomorrow we are going to equip ourselves with some hardcore cold weather gear incase of further inhospitable climes in Russia.
Enough from me for now. I’m off to have a sauna to warm up then tip into bed for an early night. Tomorrow we hope we really will be in Russia…..x x Ants