Bishkek Kyrgyzstan to Toldy Gorden, Kazakhstan and onwards to the Russia border!
12th – 15th August 2014
After entering Kazakhstan, our first stop was Almaty, which was strikingly western and functional, and somewhat tranquil; its tree-lined streets are watched over by some glacier-covered peaks in the distance. A quick lunch stop in Almaty was in order, where we abused the coffee shop’s toilets and made the most of the wifi and western menu, dining on pizza and cakes, not necessarily in that order.
After enjoying the western food, we continued to Taldykorgen, and we stayed at what was, in Rich’s estimation, the most amazing hotel in the world; the Royal Petrol Hotel, which was a neat little hotel located above and adjacent to the, yip, you guessed it, Royal Petrol Garage! We had an amazing view of the forecourt from our room. And to add the coolness of the place, Egveney, the friendly receptionist who only spoke Russian, gave us an amazing half day rate which didn’t include breakfast and caused much confusion the next morning when we understood it did include breakfast. Thank goodness for Google Translate! Egveney was so excited to have us, he dropped the phone on his computer, packed out laughing and proceeded to look us up on Facebook and order a T-shirt. What a guy!
We were now feeling the pressure to get onwards to Mongolia to ensure that Jess makes her flight back to Johannesburg, and every effort was made to put foot! The roads seemed to be improving somewhat, and what mountains are to Kyrgyzstan, plains are to Kazakhstan. It was a long ride to Oskemen, arriving at about 11 pm, at a neat hotel which the Lonely Planet said had rooms that looked nice in brown. Admittedly, they were rather pleasant, but obviously not remarkable enough for us to take a picture.
We decided to take a few hours break and enjoy some of the sights and sounds of Oskemen, which is located at the confluence of the Irtysh and Ulba Rivers (which of course you know about!). We were clearly much closer to the heart of Soviet Russia and out of the old outskirts such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; statues of Lenin adorned most parks and squares, and we paid a visit to the Russian World War II memorial, as well as a rather unimpressive Afghanistan War Memorial.
We searched for the park that JP recalled Lonely Planet saying contained an assortment of old Lenin statues, but only came across a neatly park opposite the town square that contained a motley collection of bizarre bronze creatures overlooked by a large statue of Lenin with his signature stern gaze.
We left Oskemen refreshed and set out across the Kazakh steppes for Semey, a sad town which Moscow selected for the site of nuclear testing towards the end of the Cold War. A total of 490 nukes were detonated about 100 km away, until the current Kazakhstan president asked Moscow nicely to please stop. Not sure what to expect as we squealed into town, as we rode over a set of railway tracks, Stan suddenly developed a nasty clunking sound and his rear was hanging distinctly lower…
We soon found the nearest Lada “aftomechanic” and the diagnosis from our sourly Russian mechanic was not good; his old tired rear shocks had had enough and he had finally given out with a broken spring. And there were no spares in sight. But “neet” problem, some Opel Astra springs (and here a quick note and product placement from our Lopec Auto Spares, one of our sponsors: “Lopec: For all your quality used Opel, Vauxhall and Chev parts!” and shocks from, wait for it… our favourite car!!! A UAZ-452 (pronounced Waz), practically nicknamed nicknamed Буханка (Bukhanka or Bread loaf), Таблетка (Tabletka or Pill) or Golovastik (Tadpole). But more about Favourite Car in a future blog!
A friendly local who was getting his car rebuilt, Dima, gave us a lift to the local hotel where, lo and behold, two other rally teams were entrenched, the awesome Brit lads from Steppe Response and Team Meouw Meouw (I actually have no idea how you spell it and in all honestly though that Harry and Craig’s team name was in fact Harry’s Race Team. The “c” in Race soon got changed to a “p”). Look out for more pics of these crazy guys in the Mongolia blog.
We got even more excited when we discovered that the park with the motley collection of Lenin statues, was, in fact, right behind the hotel and we could see it from our hotel window! While Craig and Harry carried on hammering their rims back into shape, we hurried down to the park to get a ridiculous amount of photos with the various Lenin statues, and afterwards headed out for some pizza and then the obligatory karaoke, were we shocked the locals with our poor singing skills as we blared out covers of Boney M, Creed and Billy Joel. Kazakhstan; please accept our formal apology.
Stan was finally good to go with his hybrid Opel/UAZ springs, but had somehow retained his nasty clunk. The mechanic would hear nothing of it except that the car was good to go, and confident with the knowledge that he would never see us stupid westerners again, charged us $150 and sent us on our way. With Stan all loaded and good to go, we made sure we had a full tank of gas, a full sump of oil and a full reservoir of water (he was, by this stage, leaking most types of fluids) and we clunked and squealed our way north to mother Russia, only slightly behind schedule! Somewhere along the line, we got stopped for speeding, which, admittedly, we were guilty as charged. The problem was, that with the intention of leaving the country, we had no local currency and couldn’t begin to pay the fine. With the nearest “bankomat” (ATM) over 100 km’s behind us, getting more cash was not a real option. JP was sent to negotiate, and, after spending about 30 minutes inside the police car where he helped the police to enjoy the air conditioning, hip music and catch other cars speeding, JP agreed that we would be free to go in exchange for some “souvenirs”. There was nothing else for it then; we would supply the three rather large (and naturally well padded) cops with three medium-sized Afristan t-shirts! Hope they fit!