Stepping out in Kazakhstan
14th ? 26th December 2004
Chelyabinsk (Russia) ? Petropavlosk (Kazakhstan) - Burabay ? Astana ? Kharaghanda ? Balkash ? Almaty
We are in Kazahkstan! The roads are brilliant and cleared frequently, there are petrol stations every 50km and the police (so far) are friendly! I say this as we have found so far along our travels that the inhabitants of neighbouring countries know nothing of the culture of their adjacent countries and are usually full of scare monger stories of driving in those countries. In Poland we were warned of car robberies if we stopped on the roads in Lithuania. We were warned in Estonia of there being really bad roads in Russia, relatively few of which were bad roads. We were warned by Russians of there being no petrol stations, no cash points and the worst roads known to humanity in Kazakhstan. None of which are true! There aren?t even any people that look like Borat here!
We have driven over 8000km to get here and travelled across 6 time zones. We arrived in Almaty in time for Christmas and New Year.
Our border crossing into Kazakhtan was a late night experience as we waited for 2 hours at the wrong place on the wrong side of the border after a confused translation from Galiya. We were to meet Vladimir?s (the guitar player in Yekatrinaberg) friends, Shamil and Nadiesha, who would help us with the crossing, sort out getting stamped in and make sure we got our insurance. They had even brought a translator along, Luba, to make the process a lot easier to understand. It made such a change to meet border guards who smiled, especially at 1am! Shamil and Nadiesha escorted us back to their house 80km from the border. We arrived at their house at 4am to the most unbelievable spread of Kazak food and three made up beds! We weren?t expecting that and we weren?t expecting the onslaught of vodka and cognac that flowed freely that evening and the following 3 days.
We were thrown a party by Nadiesha and Shamil and treated to the most unbelievable spread accompanied by two of their friends on guitar. Unfortunately, Shamil couldn?t play with them as he had cut the end of three of his fingers off 5 days before our arrival whilst making his guitars. He hand makes and sells guitars around the world in between being a traumatologist. Nadiesha is a high powered business woman owning and running 18 chemists around the city. We were treated to another banya in their house and Greg, Adrian and Tom were taught how to create smoked ham by tying ham up over the coals of the banya and leaving them over night. We also got treated to some bowling on the 6 lane bowling alley in the centre of Petropavlosk. Adrian got whisked away to go to the first disabled school in Kazakhstan with some boarding and orphaned children in the school.
Shamil and Nadiesha took some time off work with their friends Orla and her husband, to accompany us down the road on our trip in their VW camper van. We asked Luba if she would like to travel down to Almaty with us and act as our translator along our route and help us out with the police. We went to go and get the Beast from our lock up only to find we had a flat tyre and it wouldn?t start in the cold again. So we got towed down the road and bumped started again. The following day after the Beast was warmed from the chill by being heated overnight in Shamil?s garage and we set off to Lake Burabay about 185km down the road from Petropavlosk. We stopped for a spot of lunch admiring the sleeping hedgehog and the frozen lake that occupies most of the park. We discovered that it wasn?t entirely frozen when it started slopping over the top of Adrian?s boots! We stopped to pick up some dried fish for our journey (!) and then headed off to Astana. We were stopped by police along our route but Shamil used his charming smile and a big hug in order to not donate to the police funds.
We pulled into Astana at 10pm to meet our host?s friends and another amazing Kazak spread and after several cognac and vodka toasts to friends, to new friends and to more vodka and cognac we had a surreal dance around the living room with the family budgie zooming around the room trying to join in on the dance!
The following day we were taken to the Guinness Book of Records aquarium ? the aquarium the furthest from the sea in the world. We were then given a guided tour around Astana and taken to the tower recently constructed. From there you could see all the way across Astana, seeing the massive cranes slamming the new capital up before the deadline of 2006. There is to be a presidential palace, governmental buildings, a 4 religion church, embassy district and shopping area. Astana was made the capital in 1997 and slowly the governmental buildings are being moved from Almaty to Astana with huge investment going into the tiny city, presently with only 500,000 people. It was mentioned that some of the investment may be coming from the elusive Mr Bin Laden which is a possibility as Kazakhstan is rich in minerals, oils and has a great potential for development in the future.
From Astana, Shamil and Nadiesha decided to join us down to Karaghanda from where they would return back to Petropavlosk. We stayed overnight and a last few drinkies, before attempting to start the Beast the following day. No luck. A bad day in all as Shamil also had no luck and went on a mission to find a new battery and Alexis and Greg had their phone stolen from their bedroom (with them in it at the time!). Alexis discovered the problem as to why the lights in the cab had stopped working ? the battery had frozen! According to her Dad, lead-acid batteries stop working below -20oC?. As the Beast runs on a 12v system it has 2 batteries and the other one is newer (and didn?t freeze!). We got her bump started and took the batteries to warm up inside! We left her running overnight as the temperature was to drop to -28oC overnight and after a tumultuous night worrying about her being nicked we set off at 6am for Lake Balkash - Kazakhstan?s largest lake.
The drive across the steppe as it materialised through the snowy morning haze was amazing. A great expanse of nothingness. Vanishing off into the distance with no trees to act as markers, no houses, just the occasional petrol station and white fox hunting in the distance, amongst the icey grass. The Kazak steppe is approximately 1000km from top to bottom. There was an attempt to turn it into the breadbasket of Russia during soviet times but as cultivation of the area has stopped the legacy of too much fertilising and degraded soil as well the mineral exploitation are turning the steppe into an ecological disaster. This coupled with the evaporation of Lake Balkash and over use of the Ili River in China (supplied by Lake Balkash) the steppe is drying up. The road we drove along to the south of the lake used to be under the lake ? we couldn?t see the lake at all, not even on the horizon.
We stopped for a spot of dinner on the steppe, turned on the stove (inside) and boiled up some super noodles (a delicacy when you are starving). We watched the temperature creep up inside to +28oC as it dropped to -36.1oC outside. We carried on driving into the night looking for a hotel. We then lost power, on a hill, at 10pm. The accelerator cable had snapped. We bodged together a cable to attach the two severed bits and carried on driving in search of a hotel. We found one in the shape of a rail restaurant car with a hotel attached.
We turned the engine off, hoping that the following day the Beast would start. She did and we were on our way across the steppe again until we pulled over to look at this strange apparition that materialised in front of us! It was Father Christmas on a camel in the middle of nowhere. Wow! He allowed us to take some piccies, ask him some questions and then get up on the camel. Then he asked us for 500 tenge (#2) each for the privilege ? which we didn?t begrudge him as he was in the middle of nowhere and it must have been hard to scrape together a living. That was until he pulled out a massive wadge of notes to give us some change. We then thought well, you are several hundred km from anywhere ? there aren?t too many banks out here and who is going to mess with Father Christmas and his camel!
Our bodged cable snapped and Tom decided to replace it with string. We arrived in Almaty and parked up after travelling 400km with a snapped cable. An achievement in anybody?s book! We found an apartment at the apartment market where you barter for rooms. We spent a drunk Christmas day with all the trimmings and upsetting family phone calls from home, along with meeting expats who met Ewan MacGregor on his trip across Kazakhstan.
It was only 2 days later after we had left the steppe that I realised the almost stupidity of crossing a massive desert like area like that in the Beast that was playing up. We passed 19 cars in 6 hours. Not much help if you drove off the side of the road or you broke down. We have survived but the stress levels are slowly mounting along with rising tension. As you can all see ? it isn?t all fun and frolics!
Notes of Interest:
The Kazak facial look is very different from the Russian population. They have a flatter face with a slightly Mongol/Chinese look and a smile!! The population of Kazakhstan is made up of 3 major different factions ? Russian, Kazak and Uzbek.
One thing we all can?t get over is the number of dogs chained up outside in -30oC in Russia and Kazakhstan. Nearly everyone has a dog but nearly no one has them in their house.
The average salary is $50 - $100 in Petropavlosk increasing to $500 in the capital and Almaty. The cost of living that we have experienced so far is comparable to that of the UK. Runaway inflation seems to be taking grip of Central Asia.
There is a certain chauvanism that exists in the Russian and Kazak area. When carrying out introductions, men do not shake women's hands, just wave. Women to a certain extent should be show pieces and hidden.
The prejudices and ideas that we have encountered so far towards to western world have been very interesting and hopefully we have helped to dispell. In Chelyabinsk, a comment was made that we are the same as those in Russia and have the same needs as each other. In Kazakhstan, we were asked if we had got used to the smog that we have in Britain? Everywhere we have been our new friends have been worried about us speaking English ? more that we could watch the tourist prices go up before our eyes rather than attack. One idea that has constantly voiced with surprise through every country that we have been through is that we in the west have the same sense of humour as other countries outside of Europe.