So the day had come for leaving Russia and entering Kazakhstan. It was a Sunday, and our Russian Visa also ended that day – so no room for errors!
We arrived at an empty looking border and for a second thought that it was closed – dammit! But a few more cars pulled up and a person emerged from the first checkpoint asking for our passports and immigration slips. Once checked we got waived on, and to our surprise the next checkpoint said ‘Welcome to Kazakhstan’! So no exit search or list of questions – a complete contrast to what we had been told to expect.
The first Kazakhstan checkpoint just required our passports and vehicle registration documents. The Kazakh gentleman spoke English straight off and handed everything back along with a fresh set of immigration slips. We then pulled over to the dude with an AK-47 who was searching the vehicles. Show time? Nope. He asked me to open the tailgate and the twin drawers – he was only interested in stow-aways. He asked me if Jerome was my boyfriend and did we have any kids – a bit strange I thought. After about 20 seconds we were waived on to a a small queue of cars waiting to cross the final checkpoint into Kazakstan. We parked up and I wandered over to security and filled out a tiny slip of paper written in Russian. With our nifty offline Iphone app Wordlens (Hover your camera phone over Russian script and it translates it into English) we managed to write down the answers to a few rudimentary questions such as make, model and rego of the vehicle. After a short wait the boom gate was lifted, we handed over the paperwork to another guard and that was it! Hello Kazakhstan! The whole process took an hour. We simply couldn’t believe it.
Our first task was food, fuel and water in the small town of Uralsk, about 40km away from the Samara-Uralsk border. We found an indoor market and with the aid of our point-it book (a book full of simple pictures – anything from a cow to a bed) we managed to find everything that we wanted. The Kazakh people were keen to help us and I could tell already that we were very foreign and that this was a novelty for them. The change in the features of ther Kazakh people from the Russians was vast. Their skin tone ranged from lily white to olive tones with flat features and beautiful, large eyes. Their dress code was a little more conservative than the Russians and immediately they felt much more approachable. We packed up our shopping and went on a cruise for some water. Just like the Russians – Kazakhs don’t seem to have many taps on the sides of large buildings and petrol stations. We pulled into one of the many car washes (hand ones) and immediately we were swamped with a bunch of very happy, friendly, drunk men. We couldn’t tell the customers from the staff. I pointed to our jerry can and there were only too happy to fill it up for us. We needed to fill the 60L bladder tank inside the car so I began gesturing and asking them if it was OK for more water. At this point I was at the back of the car and Jerome in the drivers seat. Water was forgotten by all and the Kazakh men all wanted a picture of the car. Or so I thought! They were actually far more interested in me so I had to pose with a each man individually whilst they wrapped their arms around my waist.
Suddenly a young Kazakh man appeared from the tower block opposite the car wash who introduced himself in perfect English. We ended up staying at the car wash for about an hour chatting with the young Kazakh (Meirambek) and fending off the eager drunk men. I was asked if Jerome was my husband/boyfriend. When I replied ‘yes’, the drunkest Kazakh asked if I had a sister hahahahah. They were desperate for us to go drinking with them and Meirambek (who was translating for us) said:”I strongly advise you to say no!’. The merry Kazakhs departed after a while and our friend gave us some useful tips before we filled our tank and left Uralsk.
The Kazakhs are much more friendly and approachable than the Russians, that was for sure. Our next stop after a night camping was Aktobe, about 450km away. That’s when we started to get pulled over by the police. I’ve lost count of how many times we have been pulled over now. Having said that, they are all friendly, none have asked for money and once they realise that we don’t speak any Kazakh and only pigeon Russian they just wave us on. So it’s no trouble at all. The only thing that they are interested in is my skin tone. They seem to love the darker skin tone and they are not shy when asking if I am married to Jerome etc. One time we got pulled over and I was driving. They asked me to hop out of the car and to sit in their patrol van (just like the other drivers pulled over). When my turn came, all they asked me was private details about myself and one of the coppers had his hand on my knee. I politiely told them that my husband was waiting and could I go, to which they agreed. It’s a little creepy but not once in Kazkahstan or anywhere else on this trip has either of us felt in danger or scared in any shape or form. So all is good.
When we stop to re-fuel the diesel price is fixed at 115 Tenge, about AUD$0.66. Sweet! The security men patrol the fuel stations with their AK-47’s and friendly smiles.
The main roads that we are taking so far are all under construction, with long stretches of literally perfect, quiet motorways 100km p/h peppered with abysmal detours around the roadworks. Roadworks tend to be just before and just after towns and villages, or anywhere requiring a bridge.
We realised that the terrible detours we had to take were in fact, the old Kazakh main roads. You were very lucky to achieve 50km p/h, if not 25. The truck drivers must be chuffed with the construction of such vital new roads linking the very distant towns. Some major money must be flowing into the transport network.
We saw many billboards with the words ‘Kazakhstan 2050’ on them. Jerome googled this and the Prime Minister has initiated a plan for Kazakhstan to be included in the top 30 most developed countries by 2050. This helped to explain the amount of new roads being built. The towns we passed all had new buildings under construction too.
Back to the journey. The scenery was completely flat steppe allowing you to look as far as your eyes would allow you. The trees dwindled and then disappeared almost altogether. Large salt pans lay on either side of the road. Camels casually strolled around and small rat-guinea pig like creatures scurried in and out of their holes. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, just the hawks circling overhead.
We drove past a field of some unknown crop and all of a sudden we started to get these huge reddish bugs go splat all over our windscreen, excreting a very oily mess everywhere. this continued for about 10km by which point the front, underneath and top of the Troopy was covered in dead insects.
We hit Aktobe with the main priority of getting registered as being in Kazakhstan. Registration is a pain. The Kazakh embassy website says that upon overland entry into Kazakhstan – border control will automatically register and stamp your immigration slip. This wasn’t so. Instead we were told that we must register within 5 days of entry otherwise we could face deportation, imprisonment or heavy fines if stopped by police or upon exiting the country.
We tried (as per the border advice) to register at a hotel. They said that only the actual OVIR office branches could do it. Unbelievably, there is no record of the actual address for any OVIR office in Kazakstan (they just list the cities with branches). After a lot of googling we sped things up and rang the Canadian Embassy in Kazakhstan (part of the Commonwealth) and they gave us the Aktobe office address instantly. For anyone else looking to register here – this is the address!!!:
Sankibay Street, Batyr 143a.
Our next task was getting compulsory third party insurance for our visit. After a quick google we found a large company called Nomad Insurance, just around the corner. They turned out to be brilliant. They spoke no English, and I spoke little Russian and no Kazakh so with the help of Google Translate and a friend of theirs (via phone) we secured a month of Insurance for just AUD $11.00. Nomad are all over Kazakhstan (and possibly other Central Asian countries) and I would highly recommend them.
Business was now settled in Aktobe so it was off to Aralsk, about 630km South-East from us.
Aralsk is the site of one of the worst ecological disasters of the 20th century. In the 60’s when Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union, the soviets diverted the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea for cotton production. This resulted in a drop in the sea level and rise in salinity. It came to a point in the 80’s where the sea receded up to 100km from the harbour town of Aralsk. This destroyed their main industry of fishing and there were many other other negative effects on the environment and health of the locals.
This was one of the things we came to see, the ship cemetery of Zhalanash. We first visited the dried up harbour of Aralsk where a few lonely boats still sit propped up on concrete blocks. The cranes that were used to unload the boats rise above the town as a constant rusted out reminder of their loss.
Zhalanash is a 60km off-road drive through the desert before the trail ends and you begin your trek on the sea floor to the ship cemetery. It can be reached directly from Aralsk by driving on the sea floor but not recommended without a guide.
We drove on the sea floor for about 5km before reaching the ship cemetery. There were once 11 ships here, over the years they have been cut up and sent to China as scrap metal, 4 remain in pieces. It’s pretty striking to see where the shore use to be and the vast emptiness that follows.
From there we picked up a trail and thought we’d try our luck and see if we could make it to the water. We followed it for another 10km before we reached water.
There were 3 small wooden fishing boats there, a sign that the locals haven’t given up hope. A dam was constructed and opened in 2006 which has seen a slow but steady increase in the water levels.
From here we started making tracks for Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest and most cosmopolitan city at the foot of the Tian Shan mountain range. We drove 1700km through various landscapes, deserts, snow capped mountains and vast flood plains, all making for some interesting scenery.
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