We haven't left ourselves much time to get to Mongolia. We know we will have to rush through Kazakhstan but that's ok by us as we are a little "Stan'd" out! Kyrgyzstan is going to be a hard act to follow and we are ready to move on to something different - as in Russia. We have also heard lots of horror stories about the Kazakh police and being stopped and fined so we are keen not to spend too much time in Kazakhstan at all.
Ah yes. So it occurs to me why this group of countries are collectively known as the “Stan’s”. It’s because of the “stan’d and deliver” stan’ce taken by the police! Any given opportunity to stuff a few extra dollars into their greedy pockets. To be fair, this has not been our experience so far. Only got caught and fined for speeding twice and bribed at the Turkmenistan exit border.
This is my first border crossing without crew member number three, John goes through with Tigger and I have to go through the walking channel , it's fairly painless but I have to wait more than two hours on the other side for Tigger to arrive, just as well I have water this time as its searingly hot!
Usual run-around for the foreign tourist with the car. Go here, get the stamp. Go there, get inspected after a long wait whilst nothing else is happening. Go back to the last place only to be told that you didn’t get the stamp from the last place. Go back to the last place and queue up again until the “ official “ decides you have waited long enough then you get your stamp and continue the merry-go-round. Even thinking about it makes my blood pressure start to rise, but, keep calm. It’s a means to an end…smile smile.
We have been given two stamps on a special piece of paper which mean we have 15days visa free in Kazakhstan and we don't have register either! However, we are in a rush and decide we are going to get through in 5 days. Kazakhstan is a big country - the 9th biggest in the world and the biggest country in Central Asia , 2.7million sq km. And we want to keep away from those pesky police!
First thing we notice where are the mountains? There are apparently mountains around Almaty but we bypass the city. It is mostly vast open spaces of Steppe , a distinct lack of animals and yurts just lots and lots of nothing.
Lots and lots of ..............nothing!
We drive more or less non-stop during daylight hours, we have a lot of ground to cover. The first 200km are on good roads, after that though it all changes. The roads are still tarmac but full of lumps and bumps, Tigger is heavy and he bounces, so we have to take things very slowly and carefully
Yep. Roads. What happened to “ driving is fun?”. Now it’s just a chore. Can’t take your eyes off the road to enjoy the scenery, not even for the briefest of time because that’s when the pothole pops up and threatens to remove one of your wheels.
We camp mostly just off the side of the road, we travel with a Swiss Motorcyclist Jonathon for a short while and camp together one night but all in all Kazakhstan is pretty uneventful, even the dreaded police don't make much of a show. We do get stopped once to get papers checked and the guard asks if we have a souvenir he could have so we give him a postcard of Cambridge - he seems more than happy with that.
Nice to have some company on the road
And even Laybys can be pretty as the sun goes down
It's exhausting driving sometimes 9 hours per day - well I know I'm not actually driving but I am there helping John drive! People have asked what do you do with the time - well amazingly we talk and also, we don't talk! We watch the scenery go by we listen to music (I have discovered John's IPod shame!) ( hey! Look who’s talking! I have the usual Man music, rock and roll stuff you know. But the Abba and 70’s disco I have Andrew Watson to thank for that. He showed me the way on our numerous boy's ski holidays in Chamonix. He would often treat us to a display of hip swinging and air punching disco dance moves whilst off pisting in the Les Houches hills listening to his iPod.) and also to talking books. But mostly in places like Kaz we are watching the road looking for potholes and bumps and sneaky policemen - John has named me his "Sat Nag" as I am always shouting the speed limits out to him!
About 3 days into the journey John has noticed a new noise coming from Tigger, an unusual banging noise, we empty cupboards to check it’s not something we have put away awkwardly, we are constantly listening for when it happens it seems worse when going over bumps, but we just can't figure out where it is coming from. Probably because the roads are so awful there are frequent ramps on the side of the road which you can drive your car on to and look underneath, which we did but still none the wiser. John even lets me drive while he sits in the back trying to identify where the noise is coming from, he must be worried!! ( double jeopardy! )
The noise was only a suspension strut rubber bearing which had disintegrated. We stopped in a gas station forecourt so I could whip the wheel off and have a look. There were a couple of locals there who immediately became interested and once I had identified the problem one of the guys ushered me to his car so he could take me to place where I could get a replacement. But another chap grabbed my arm and lead me to the boot of his car and there under the carpet he produced a plastic bag with a selection of new bushes. One of them fitted and he even helped fit it. In fact, I couldn’t stop him helping! It fitted a treat. He point blank refused to take payment for this – what fantastic people. Not at all what we were expecting here. Thank you guys J
We haven't really give Kazakhstan much of a chance as all we have done is drive through but highlights are the soaring birds of prey which are everywhere and the desolate beauty of the Steppe which has grown on us over the journey. As we get closer to the Russian border the county side changes and we find a forest to camp in, which is pretty and an improvement on all other roadside camps. We are also particularly pleased with ourselves as we manage to get through the whole country only changing $100! This includes petrol (well it is only 35p a litre) buying insurance and food - surely this means we can stay in a luxury hotel in Russia!!!
Goodbye Central Asia
Kazakhstan is our last "Stan" and the last country in Central Asia we are visiting. Overall we have loved the Stan’s, and they should really be on everyone's wish list of places to go (well maybe not Turkmenistan!) So here is our quick round up of what Central Asia meant to us
Driving - Driving in Central Asia is like driving in a country of boy racers, It's terrifying! The roads are mostly dreadful and there is always a policeman hiding round every corner waiting to catch you speeding. On the upside petrol/diesel at its most expensive was 40p a litre and its cheapest 20p
Award for the worst roads goes to Turkmenistan
Award for worst driving - the whole of Central Asia!
Food - Unless you are a big fan of boiled mutton, salted milk balls and horses milk then you could be disappointed with the food. However, we did find lots of fresh fruit and veg being sold on the roadside throughout , which although limited was always seasonal and fresh but tended to lack variety, there is only so much you can do with a tomato, cucumber and an Aubergine!. ( !!!!!! ) Driving along you tend to find whole areas selling a particular food - for instance, Apricots (which you have to buy by the bucket load) and once you have passed that area you don't see apricots again!
Vodka is the drink of choice everywhere and is incredibly cheap, you can pick up a bottle for anything between £1.50 and £4.50 (and that’s expensive!) I mostly chose them for the prettiness of the bottle as Vodka to me doesn't seem to have much of a taste, but when in Rome and all that!
Other recreational substances are readily available growing by the roadside!
The scenery has been breathtaking and diverse. From deserts to snow-capped mountains, beautiful lakes and the miles and miles of unending landscapes of the Steppe.
Central Asia and especially Kyrgyzstan (although not exclusively) are great examples of man living in harmony with nature, herds of animals graze everywhere, the animals are farmed but they live happy lives, looked after by shepherds who move them around to graze from one luscious pasture to the next, living simply - no large machinery, no pesticides just the animals and a yurt or two! We didn't see any animals that look badly cared for and that included cats and dogs. There is a real respect for animals here even if it is based on them being a supply for food or as a work vehicle
Award for the most beautiful Country for us was Kyrgyzstan - go before it gets spoilt, you won't be disappointed.
Award for the craziest City - Ashgabat - the while marbled city is weird on so many levels
Award for the most beautiful City - Khiva in Uzbekistan. You are transported back to another time with the sights, sounds and smells of the silk route.
But what really made Central Asia special for us were the people, everyone is so friendly and welcoming and were genuinely interested in us. They so wanted us to like their country and went out of their way to make our trip so very special.
Next issue– Russia…..