Kazakhstan - the Country of Borat(?), Deserts & Friendly People
Apparently Kazakhstan is notorious for its bad roads and desert landscape, which is why we were so surprised when we found ourselves on a stretch of 200km long “highway” travelling at the max speed limit (55mph / 90kph) heading to Konstanay. Arriving in the city we were confused with what we found! There was an abundance of modern looking banks, hotels, streets and shopping centres - the way you would find them in most European cities. On top of this nearly everybody we saw was extremely curious and was either waving, pointing, honking or simply trying to give us directions in Kazakh on how to get to Astana, the capital.
We decided to stay the night in Konstanay in order to 'register' our visa, they had to be stamped by the migration police in one of the regional capitals within 72 hours of entering the country, otherwise we would be fined $100! The next morning we went on the search of the migration police office, which to no surprise was not officially open, they only spoke Kazahk and need us to fill out a form in Russian. Being face with this task, we decided to take our chances and spend the day driving to the next regional headquarters, hoping that we would be able to register it there. We all had the faint hope they could speak English in the next place… which was wishful thinking.
So we headed out into the desert with our map of Kazakhstan and a compass, confident that we knew the way to Zhezkazgan. After 200km we encountered our first major junction, which was a round-about with four roads leading off it, we were confident that taking the first right was the best choice. The road was in terrible condition, which gave us a great sense of security that we were heading the right direction. After about 2 km (10 mins) we were waved down by locals, which were once again trying showing us the way to Astana and were also indicating that the road was probably going to end, by forming a cross with their arms. Being engineers we 'knew' better that the locals (silly us) and thought that they were just trying to send us to the capital...
Our confidence in our route choice was slowly reducing and after 1 hour (45 km) of potholed roads and ambient temperature of 35 degrees - we arrived at the dead end the locals had tried to tell us about!! Disappointed with our navigational skills, we turned the car around to discover that the fuel indicator was showing nearly empty. With no other choice we headed back on the tough 45 km road and ended up in the next village trying to find a petrol station. Having found one, Sean went in to ask about fuelling the car and returned promptly being escorted by a Mongolian looking security guard wielding a shotgun and a pistol... Apparently he was told to come back in 20 minutes to fuel, so we waited for half an hour to make sure we didn’t have another encounter with the man packing some serious fire power...
This time we took the correct route and ended up stopping for the night after having witnessed a full double rainbow in the middle of Kazakhstan! It was the first time we were camping in the wild, so it was no surprise that we got a rather unfriendly visit from a family of hungry mosquitoes.
With an early start the next morning we thought we were going to make it to Zheshkegahn some 350 km away in time to register our visas that day. After about two hours of driving and only having covered 80 km we realized it was going to be hard to reach our target. The fact that we arrived at a river crossing to find that the bridge had been destroyed didn’t help. Trying to find an alternative route across the river, we were forced to cross a muddy river bank. Confident that our Kia Rio was up to the task we were left laughing at the side of the road when the wheels of the car started spewing up mud and the car sunk into the mud. This meant we had to jack up the car and dig/push it out setting us back by another hour and 15 minutes. One would have thought we had learned from this experience, but apparently we hadn’t, when we found ourselves pushing our car through another muddy part of the otherwise dry desert.
We went to the migration police the next day, expecting to be faced with a load of Russian paperwork and communication problems. Arriving there we were met by the chief police officer and his secretary, both of them not really speaking any English. After they understood we wanted our visas stamped, they still insisted showing us the best route to get to Astana and then to Mongolia. At this point we were starting to wonder, what was there in Astana that we were missing? We managed to convince them we wanted to take the long and complicated route, to which they replied in Kazakh with a head shake, probably meaning “Typical foreigners, they always think they know better!”.
Having got our visa stamped the Chief police officer escorted us out into the parking lot to inspect our car, before laughing, shaking our hands and wishing us good luck. With an afternoon start we headed even further into the centre of the Kazakhstan desert, where we nearly toppled our car getting stuck on a sand bank, before we finally stopped and set up camp in the middle of a desert plain.
Getting up the next morning we headed for Turkestan to visit the Hodja Ahmet Yasawi Mausoleum, on the way meeting loads of wild camels, also starring at our car! The Mausoleum was worth while visiting being an impressive piece of architecture. At the Mausoleum we met a group of Chinese travelers in a van, who were doing a similar trip to ours just in the other direction. After the visit to the Mausoleum was continued to head direction Kyrgyzstan, again sleeping in the “wild”. Although that depends if one classifies “wild” as camping in a construction site next to the train tracks!
The following morning we headed for the Kyrgyzstan border, en-route meeting two Mongol Rally cars which had come from the south. Having three Mongol Rally cars parked on the side of the road, attracted so much attention, including hundreds of car honks and even people stopping to take photos with us and asking if we were heading to Astana.
As a conclusion from out first visit to Kazakhstan: it is nothing like what you would expect from the movie Borat. Also the people here are the friendliest and most curious people we have meet on this trip so far.
However the question still remains, what is there in Astana?
That is all for now.
Simon, Scott and Sean