ROTW - Part 1 (less adventures than part 2!)

Kazakhstan Travel Blog

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Russia:

Sunday 27th July. It has been an eventful day, finally a bit of adventure! Though shall start with yesterday. After a long drive we pulled over to sleep in a woody track, where I thoroughly managed to convince myself that there was something in the bushes and didn't want to get out the car for ages.
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We slept badly as usual and hit the road again, aiming for Chelyabinsk (part of the Russian industrial heartland and supposed to be pretty ugly, although not magnificintly ugly - like Magnitagorsk apparently). Ryan managed to get pulled over by the cops for doing some illegal overtaking and had to sit in their car whilst the policeman drew diagrams and threatened to take his license. I forgot to mention that the same thing happened to me the day before. We got away with no fine anyway.

We drove through the proper Urals - real big Siberian forested hills, and when there was a view around the trucks it was quite nice. We stopped for lunch and got the worst one yet.... truthfully inedible. Met some German truckers who helped with the road info. Arrived Chelyabinsk in the evening and managed to get completely lost. Upon entering the city we were so distressed with the days poor food and non existent toilets, we were actually looking for a McDonalds. We found one quickly. Overall we were not fan of the city, upon entry there was a minor car crash (car hit tram - doh!) and the first thing anyone did to us was swear out of a car window. When we weren't aquaplaning on very poorly drained roads, we found, (when lost) what appeared to be the (most) industrial side of town, complete with dilapidated nuclear powerplant (?) and real grimness. To top it off a bus went through a massive puddle which threw water through the window and caught me in the face.... nice. I'm even more toxic now.

We made it out of the city and slept in a cafes car park.

========== RUSSIA / KAZAKHSTAN
This morning we had breakfast at the cafe - picking blindly off the menu. We got two things, which consisted of a bowl of oil with vegetables in and a plate of some unidentifiable fish in fairly nasty sauce. We hit the Kazakh border early afternoon. They were clearly not used to seeing rally teams but were nice to us. It was still confusing and took us 3.5 hours to get through. The border guards tend to be barking orders to everyone and surly until we turn up speaking English to them and asking for them to fill out our forms for us. Generally they just tend to find what we are doing ludicrous and it provides them with something to laugh about, and they get to practice their English.

Kazakhstan greeted us with a beautiful sunset and we pushed on to a city called Kokansu in the hope of a hotel and a shower. On the road to there, Ryan pulled over for a bathroom break, almost immediately a bug flew through the window prompting me to get out of the car and realize that the car was attracting a swarm of mosquitoes, wasps, green bugs and giant fly things. When I opened my door to escape they started flying in. Ryan was almost as distressed as I was .... not knowing what half of them were. So I took the rather pathetic cop out of walking away from the car and down the road - as I found the bugs didn't follow me, and Ryan drove the car with all of the doors open trying to blow them out before I got in. Unfortunately that plan did not work as the infestation was so bad. So, instead the deet came out and Ryan shut the doors and went on an extermination mission and then drove down the road to pick me up. When I got in the car I almost suffocated! Yet the bugs were so big they would not die and so Ryan drove on whilst I Deeted anything that moved and we tried to breath.

When we got to Kokansu, we drove around for a while and got directions from friendly people.  It has been a pleasant change from some distinctly moody Siberians lately. Anyway, we found a hotel and pulled up to investigate. There was no one in reception and generally it did not seem too hopeful at all. We got back in the car to find another hotel and the car engine started then stopped. Never to be turned on again.

Big problems! So that takes us to tonight. We stood around for a while under the street lighting, trying to figure out what was wrong with it and fielding some inquiries from friendly Kazakhs.  Then these two guys who pulled up in a shiny BMW came over and started assisting us in working out what was wrong. They turned out to be complete legends and helped us immensely. So THANKYOU to Bogapov Alen and Ibragimov Timur.

They diagnosed that the car had a problem with the ignition and we really can not go anywhere. To make it worse, the windows would not close and were completely down. The ignition problem couldn't be fixed due to the anti-theft lock (to prevent hotwiring) so instead they got their battery out of the BMW and hotwired our windows. That involved me with my fingers on bitten off wires placed on the battery terminals,  whilst they tried out the different combination's and sparks flew!  I was told it was safe and grimly held on! They got our windows up and are sending their younger brothers tomorrow morning to help us. We don't really know what the plan is, but luckily we don't need to be in Astana until Wednesday. We are going to need to get the car to a garage it seems.

Finally, after saying goodbye to our new friends, Ryan and I went in search of food and a bathroom. As there was nothing open at midnight we blagged our way into a hotel to use their facilities (which turned out to be appalling) and then went back to the square by the car to eat cake and drink beer. A taxi man approached us and tried to communicate that it was likely that someone would steal our spare wheels on the roof... he could not make himself understood until he did a great impression of a thief which got Ryan and a number of other taxi driver laughing. We told them we would be sleeping in the car so hopefully no probs. Like last year, we have chosen the most public place in a city to break down in, so we expect a few nosey people to be looking in at us during the night whilst we sleep. The car has mozzies in and I am not feeling too great this evening but I think that we are both too tired to really care.

Kazahstan:

Well I have more to write than I should do as our last blog appears not to have uploaded properly. Do'h. So I shall start from the morning we awoke in the car in Kokansu. We were woken up by Timur and Alens younger brother sometime around 8am after a few hours sleep in the car in the middle of the city. They quickly ordered us a taxi and arranged for us to be towed to a garage. Unfortunately, as the car had no ignition at all it had no power steering or brakes - and so whilst Sophie rode in the taxi I was left trying to steer the car behind the taxi and stamp on the breaks at every junction. Matters were made worse as the road to the garage was closed, and so we had to take a detour around the city. The tow rope snapped three times, each time the taxi man stopped and tied it back together again and when we eventually pulled up to the garage it was pretty much in shreds (we still need to buy a new one). Timur and Alens brother (we have sadly lost his name) paid for the taxi and then set about explaining to the mechanics what was wrong.

They all crowded round and set to work. The problem was diagnosed as a broken wire, which had then blown a fuse. This was replaced, the car given a brief checkover and it started first time. The cost came to a mere 30 pounds, knocked down to around 25 as that was all the cash we had on us. Despite my efforts to find out exactly what wire had gone, I was told simply 'don't worry, this garage mechanics are very good and fast, it won't happen again'. And so, with the car back in running order and generally checked over, we picked up Timur and Alens brother and drove back to the square in which we spent the night. Timur showed us to a cafe for some food. We said our goodbyes and they went to work and school whilst we settled down to a round of pizzas. Then with the car in full working order we hit the road again, aiming for Astana.

Sophie drove us along good roads, albeit heavily undergoing roadworks. In fact the whol;e distance between the cities was heavily being developed. We did manage to pull over at a lake shortly after Astana for a dip and an afternoon siesta. We also got chatting to some friendly but slightly too naked Kazakhs who were asking what we were up to. Pushing on, we arrived in Astana in the late afternoon, and somehow managed to miss the city completely as we drove through some crazy dusty roadworks complete with random concrete pillars in the road (lots of bridge building going on too). We went back for another attempt and managed to get into the city and park up at the Radisson. Obviously that was about five times over our budget, but Sophie did make good use of the toilet - which is probably going to be the pinnicle of bathrooms for the trip.

 After several false starts and ending up back where we started, we found a place from the Lonely Planet which was a nice hotel/restaurant decked out in slightly cheesy Russian village theme. It was fantastic, we had a fridge to cool drinks, the biggest bed I have ever slept in and a shower. We even had a treadmill tucked in the corner of the bedroom and glass cabinets, etc...it was the height of homely luxury and we promptly deceded it was well worth it, we deserved it and we would stay another night. We grabbed some food and then enjoyed our first shower in a week, followed by our first bed in the same length of time. The next day we pretty much spent in bed. After a week of sleeping in the car curled around the steering wheel and gearstick it was much needed. We did manage to track down an internet cafe to write the last blog and grab some food at an 'English' pub before retiring back to bed, the heat soaking up what energy we had left.

So that takes me to last Wednesday, where we were invited by the British embassy to visit an orphanage in Astana. We were met at our hotel by a swanky landrover on diplomatic plates, and met our very kind host Olga. We followed the landy through Astana and arrived around 11 at the orphanage. We had a great time, meeting members of the British embassy, we joined in with the kids playing games and doing puzzles, despite the obvious language barrier it worked well. We then settled down with all of the kids for a round of English tea and biscuits, mixed with traditial Kazakh sweets and breads. We chatted to Olga, the staff and the kids, who were all facinating before showing them the car and taking photographs. We were very kindly presented with a traditional Kazakh tea set, to go alongside the British one we are carrying. And which is obviously more helpful for us now considering that the one we bought from home is now very chipped after falling out the boot, at speed, in the Ukraine.

We gave the kids a few small things from the charity boxes we are carrying, some balls and a kite. The kids in the orphanage came from a range of backgrounds, including street children and families with alcohol problems. The backgrounds of the children and circumstances were all different, though it was interesting for us to find out that these children will not be adopted and this is their real home until they grow up. It is a sobering thought to witness what these children have. It was lovely for us to see that, regardless of their age, most of them, even the teenages really were still kids and behaved like kids, they were all very sweet and kind to each other and regardless of their age they all joined in the games and were having fun.

We don't know what is going to happen with the rally in future, but if it runs sucessfully we will endeavour to see if we can help them out. Not sure what form that takes but what we have found is that when it comes to having items that will keep them busy, they have very little and probably about half the children where saying that the things they like to do the most were puzzles, playing football and climbing. It would be nice if we could find a way to encourage others passing by to channel things over, but its all just an idea lacking substance at the moment.

After saying our goodbyes we were escorted back to our Hotel, and more sleep was had before we eventually packed up around 10:00pm. The owner of the hotel had made us a traditional Russian meal in takeaway form, and we went out into the town and ate it by some magnificent colourful fountains. We eventually left the city at something like midnight. As always, this was a mission in itself, and we ended up following a shopworker who had finished his shift in a car that, in England, would not even made it to the MOT test centre (it had no back window for starters). He took us through some unlit areas of the city, and just as we were wondering quite where we were going, we came out on the brightly lit motorway bound for Almaty. Sophie took over the driving post Astana and drove until the wee hours, at which point we stopped in a truck stop by a cafe for the night.

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We were woken up at around 8am with the sun turning the car into a greenhouse. By 8am it was over 30 degrees outside and by 9 into the 40's, with the heat not letting up until 7 or 8 in the evening. Our drive to Almaty was mostly through scrub desert, and the heat was intense. I'm going to go on a little rant about it now, as 'how do you cope?' is a question that I have been asked a lot. According to the car thermometer, the maximum temperature reached has been a whopping 52 celcius. We have no air conditioning, and so the tactic is to wind down the windows and be blasted by hot air - which helps cool us down but dehydrates us quicker. We keep water in flasks to keep it cool, otherwise it gets very hot. If we want to make a cup of tea, we can just leave a bottle of water on the dashboard for 10 minutes. Layered up with factor 50 suncream, sun hats and the trusty buffs we have just about coped - although the heat has got to us and sapped our energy. Anyway, after awaking in the truck stop and deciding it was too scabby to eat at we hit the road again. it was mostly good, and we were aiming for lake Balkhash - a large lake in the middle of Kazakhstan.

WE arrived at the lake in good time and stopped for a dip at a nice scenic spot (actually at the town of Balkash). It was quite beautiful (apart from a little too much litter) and we felt refreshed, carrying on down the road. We thought it was a great beginning and things could only get better. We had a plan that when we dried off we would simply pull over and walk into the lake with all our clothes on again...and that would get us through the high temperatures nicely. Unfortunatley, we were thwarted. This was to be our best experiance of Lake Balkhash, and from there it was all downhill. Driving periodically down little tracks (which was usually tricky driving) headed for the lakeside looking for a nice camping spot for the evening, each time we were met with larger and larger piles of litter. It was quite unbelievable how the Kazakhs had managed to ruin the watersedge of an Absolutely massive lake. and in some places you could barely sit down on the shore without sitting on a smashed beer bottle or some such.

This finally culminated in our last attempt of the evening. We took a pretty obscure turn hoping for something a bit less likely to be visited and hoping to be able to camp there as well. We turned off the main road headed for a village. This turned out to be a shanty town, surrounded by several years of village waste and burnt out Ladas. Undeterred, we carried on through looking for our beauty spot by the late. We crossed two railway lines and just as the sun was setting found a still littered but not so bad piece of lake. It was weedy, and we are not too keen on leeches. Nevertheless, being persistant we waded into the water for a wash, only to find that mosquitoes were swarming and were determined to have us for dinner. Running back to the car and jumping in, in the darkness, fully clothed and soaking wet, trapped in the car by the worst bugs, we decided to cut our losses and head back to the road, just as some Kazakhs (seemingly undeterred by the litter and bugs) turned up. Things continued going downhill however, as our path to the river during the daylight had involved a graveyard, dirt tracks and following a JCB. Trying to backtrack at night was a nightmare, and we duly got lost in some roadworks, somehow managing to get ourselves onto a track parallel to the one we wanted, but about 4 meters lower. Some slightly ambitious but ultimately successful maneuvers eventually got us back on track (the main problem with our car is the bugger-all ground clearance).

On the main road it was late, and we went for a truck stop. Again. Although after this shenanigans we did hysterically laugh for about half an hour...because there wasn't anything else that could be done. All our romantic notions of swimming and sleeping by a lake and relaxing finally were literally blown out the water...and we had been living for that notion all day. Sophie was exhausted, and we had not eaten all day. I managed a bowl of lachman (tasty asian noddle soup) but Soph felt too ill to have any and only managed a noodle. Parking up in the truck stop we had a choice, and not a pleasant one. We could close the car windows, thus keeping out the bugs but heating the car to extreme temperatures as soon as the sun starts to appear at 5am or so. Alternatively we could open the windows, keep the car cooler for longer but let the mozzies in. We decided to take the latter option and coated ourselves in layers of deet. The car did indeed stay cool enough for us to get some ok sleep, however despite the deet we got attacked by the bugs. Injuries including swollen elbows each, backside, chin, thigh, ankle, hand etc etc, and we are still itching to date. We have at least been on the anti-malarials for a week now.

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We awoke with our various bites and hit the road once more for Almaty (south east Kaz). The road was mostly ok but with parts of heavy duty off road desert driving due to random roadworks/road closures. The car made it through with a few scrapes, including one part where we had to get out and build our self a piece of road because the car could not take the dirt track we were on. After these shenanigans, we were back on tarmac. The tarmac had however been so worn by passing trucks that there were huge grooves in the road which our car had to straddle. Failing this the car would slip into the grooves and bottom out, grinding assorted bits of underside against the road. Having said that the car is still running ok - although we are picking up a series of possibly heat-related electrical gremlins. These include: Loss of central locking. The interior lights no longer work, but turning them on instead turns on the warning noise you get with the main lights on and the doors open. The analogue fuel gauge has never worked, and the digital one started randomly telling us we had no fuel left despite a full tank (although due to the loss in Russia of our fuel filler cap, we have been losing some to evaporation). The stereo turns itself off when you open the doors, and is also affected by the light switch. Minor problems, most of which have been ok since we have been out of the extreme heat. Late afternoon on Friday we found a nice river to go for a dip in, wasting another half hour cooling down before hitting Almaty in good time.

We found a hotel out of the Lonely Planet (after dodging some crazy driving by the locals). Just as we were busy looking for a place to park our car, Sophie spotted someone she knew on the street and went over to say hello. I was a bit bemused as to who this person was, and why he looked so much like Sir Alan Sugar's adviser from The Apprentice. Anyway, turns out he was - as Sophie realised after a while that that is why she recognized him. Nick turned out to be a nice chap, he is doing the Mongol Rally solo in a Renault 4 - fair play to him. We gave him some advice on the roads to come, and also met some Australian bikers on the same street (dotted with various rally cars - although none quite as filthy as ours). Nick is doing a twice weekly blog for the telegraph, which we should hopefully be in soon (including photo perhaps Smiling). We took some pictures and went to grab some food, sort the car and book into the hotel. That all done and dusted, we settled down to another much needed shower and bed for the night.

And that brings me to yesterday! A day off for us, as we were so exhausted by the heat from the previous days driving, and as the temperature in Almaty is still in the 40s we did not venture out of the hotel until 4pm. We went to the local cafe and ran into Nick again. We had a late lunch with him chatting about Kazkah roads and the Apprentice etc etc (it was quite odd him asking us for advice). Following this we wondered to the main street and back, and wound up drinking in a cafe until the early hours of the morning with some mountaineers, fresh back from a glacier in Kyrgzstan and who gave us some useful info as to the altitude aspects of our trip. And so today, we have had some food, checked out of the hotel and found an internet cafe. We are headed for Kyrgzstan and lake Issy-Kul this evening, although we don't know if we will make it and if the border will be open. Internet may be scarce from here on in as we go through the most beautiful parts of the trip - the Kyrgz lakes and the legendary 'Roof of the World', Pamir highway. I hope you are all well!
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