A few hours, a lot of stamps and a rudimentary car check later, we were on our way into the glorious nation of Kazakhstan! We started driving towards Almaty and soon started looking for a good place to set up for the night. There was a small cafe/house on the side of the road, so we asked the family there if we could sleep there for the night. Since we don’t speak Kazakh or much Russian, this most entails saying the Russian word for tent and making sleeping motions. We usually get a positive response, and I let the five ladies choose some earrings for their kindness. Sebastien and I set up our tent and left the top open. We saw a ton of shooting stars and realized we were camping on the first day of the Perseid meteor showers. Without city lights to bother us and the huge Kazakh sky above us, we had a great show and slept soundly, awakening to the sounds of little puppies sniffing at our tent. (the Perseides were starting at this point so it was great to tent outside, in the middle of the night, I got up to put the tarp back on because of the temperature variation. As I opened the tent I found out who the puppies belonged to. I was greeted by a giant Mastiff. After a few moments of hesitation, I clicked at him, and he proceeded to sniff me and decided he should roll on his back. I pet him, put the tarp back on and went back to bed – S)
The drive to Almaty was interesting, Kazakhstan is such a vast nation. The landscape varies between plains, mountains and hills and the roads were surprisingly adequate. We arrived in Almaty and stopped near the centre to find a bank. We crossed the street and were beckoned over by some Kazakh cops. We thought they just wanted to say hi, when to our surprise they started to write us a ticket. We had no idea what it could be for (we had also gotten our car washed so it couldn’t be for that), when through sign language they gestured that it was for jay-walking and we should use the pedestrian crosswalks. Clearly this was ridiculous because during this conversation there were about five other people blatantly jaywalking near them. (I started yelling Touriste! Extortion! Having my usual luck with cops it’s a good thing Aruna was there –S) After pointing this out and smiling and laughing a lot, while I grabbed at our passports, we managed to extricate ourselves from the ridiculous situation. As we were driving around looking for a hotel we saw another rally team who told us where they were staying, but also that they were leaving that day with some other teams.
Sebastien and I had to decide what to do at that point. We had heard some Mongol Rally rumours about past teams that had driven in Northern Kazakhstan on their own, broken down for three days and almost run out of food and water before anyone found them. Our options were to leave with the cars we had just met up with, or stay in Almaty and leave the next day, hoping that we could find someone on the way. We decided that our drive around Almaty looking for a hotel was a sufficient sight-seeing tour and decided to leave town that afternoon with the two other teams (Aussies, different Canadians and some Brits).
We soon lost two of the other cars when we stopped for food with the Mongol Rally Roos. It was a Sunday and Kazakh police were out in full force to stop us for whatever transgression imaginable – driving 8 km/h over the speed limit, not using lights (you have to have your light on all the time in Kazakhstan) or just to stay hi. We managed to get out of all of these situations without paying any fines, but the most imaginative negotiation technique was used by the Aussies. They are three guys – Rhys, Ben and Ed. Rhys and Ben were the initial team (Mongol Rally Roos), but they picked up Ed along the way when his sidecar motorbike broke down during the starting lap of the Goodwood Motor Circuit on day one of the Rally. Ed decided his motorbike was not going to make it and decided to hitch his way through the Rally. Ben and Rhys had offered early on to take him, but he had been with a different team until Kyrgyzstan.
Anyway, Rhys (an HR specialist in the real world) had tried all of his tactics to no avail, and was getting pretty annoyed with the cops when they told him that he had to pay a $50 fine. Ed decided to use the Kaptain Koala technique. Ed bounded over to where Rhys was with the cops (Rhys was about to crap himself at this point since the cops were being really serious and he didn’t think it was time for joking around, they were on the point of putting him into the back of the police car) when Ed whipped his hand out with a cheesy Aussie tourist koala on his finger and yells “I’ve got the answer!! KOALA!”. After a brief pause, the cop grabbed the koala and pretended to attack Ed with it, while making a koala noise. He pointed at the radar camera and Rhys said “Ed, he wants you to run and check your speed!” Ed started to run away when the cop called him back, put his arm around Ed and got his fellow officer to take a picture of the two of them with the radar camera. Apparently the koala technique has worked in the past, these guys have yet to pay a ticket!
After these entertaining incidents, we drove on and found a place off the highway near a few yurts to camp. The occupants of the yurt (Ruzel and Viera) let us camp near their sheep and yurt. We gave them a few beers, gave their herder who was on a horse one as well and set up camp. We made dinner and invited Ruzel and Veira to join us. We had a few drinks and chatted (Viera spoke some English). Ruzel played some Kazakh party music and eventually we ended up back at their yurt snacking, dancing a bit and hanging out. They offered to take us around for a bit on their horse, so Sebastien got on and we took a few pictures of him. The flashes frightened the horse a bit and Sebastien got head-butted. Lucky for him, he wasn’t really injured [insert joke about him being hard-headed] (Once, three horses came for me... – S). I got on the horse and Veira handed me a baby lamb as well. The boys passed me a beer and took some pictures. I felt like I was in the bizarre Kazakh version of an Old Spice commercial, except I wasn’t advertising any product. We all became best friends and Ruzel gave Sebastien a gold chain (jury is out on whether or not it is real) and Veira gave me a cutlery set. We tried to refuse both these gifts but they wouldn’t take no for an answer and were very forceful! Sebastien gave Ruzel his laser pointer and I gave Veira some earrings.
Eventually we went to bed and Ruzel promised Sebastien he could help herd the sheep in the morning at 5 am. Sebastien woke up all ready to help herd sheep but knocked on the door of the yurt and didn’t get an answer. The sheep were still in the pen, but Ruzel was not waking up. Sebastien stayed awake for an hour in case anyone came along to help him realize him dream of being a sheep herder for a day, but then headed back to bed when no one came by after an hour. He woke up to the sounds of the sheep escaping their pen, but Veira and Ruzel were nowhere to be found. It was very strange! We all got up and the neighbours came over to ask us who we were, and if we knew where the couple was, but we didn’t have any answers either! Ben was standing to one side with a shovel, Sebastien was wearing Ruzel’s chain and I had their cutlery, so it was a potentially suspicious situation. I left Veira a note and we packed up, the mystery of their whereabouts unsolved and us commenting on what a fun (but strange!) night/morning it had been. We definitely won’t be forgetting Kazakhstan! The neighbours were still looking for them when we left.
As we drove yesterday we ran into a few more teams, one of which is driving a huge ambulance. Those boys are lucky, they have two stretchers in the back they can use as beds – more comfortable than a lot of places we have slept! They are also Aussies and the Mongol Rally Roos gave them the advice about the koala technique, which they used to get out of a ticket that day as well. Yesterday was basically a big driving day, which meant we had ample time to listen to audiobooks! We camped on the side of the road after our first attempt to find a place took us to a small, slightly decrepit Soviet-era village which Ben described as “the kind of place you wake up in with no organs”. It wasn’t quite that bad, the locals gave us directions to where we could get some food and beer, but we still didn’t need to stay there longer than 10 minutes. We enjoyed the last views of the meteor showers, chatted and slept soundly!
Yesterday we drove to Semey on some of the most varied roads ever. Really nice new tarmac mixed with dirt roads and roads that had more potholes than actual roads. Sebastien’s years of video gaming have definitely come in handy as we dodged pothole after pothole. Much like in Uzbekistan, there was a stretch where there was a new road right next to the crappy road. This time, we resisted the temptation to try and take the new, faster road thinking we would probably get stuck anyway and lose any advantage we would have gained. The Aussie ambulance team tried it though, and we pulled over when we saw their beast of an ambulance stuck on a sandy bump. One guy was in good spirits and trying all sorts of maneuvers to get the ambulance out, but his other two team members were sick. One had just puked and the other was evacuating his bowels. The side door on their ambulance also chose that moment to fall off when they tried to open it. The Mongol Rally Roos and our team surveyed the situation to see what could be done. We grabbed our tow rope and Ed flagged down an SUV to come and help the guys out. I supervised (recorded the whole thing on video) while the boys all pushed and the SUV pulled. The ambulance triumphantly broke free of the bump and we were all on our way!
A long pot-hole filled ride later, we arrived in Semey. We found a park with a bunch of WWII tanks and planes and took some glamour shots before we found our hotel. The first shower in a few days feels good. We also saw the other sights Semey has to offer, a park with a bunch of Lenin statues, another war memoral, and a place that serves beer.
Today we’re on our way to Russia, heading towards the border with Mongolia to make our final push to Ulaanbaatar! We probably will not have internet access, so stay tuned for updates after we cross the finish line!