Everything changes

Location : 50° 43′ 35″N, 86° 18′ 28″E (Altai Republic, Russia)
Distance from Sydney:  11,401km
They say that if you put a frog in a pot of water and slowly boil it, the change of temperature is slow enough that the frog won’t realise it’s being cooked, and will die before he jumps out.  I always wondered whether the frog at least had some kind of suspicion about what was going on.  ie. “Warm today eh?” that kind of thing.  As we travelled across Kazakhstan though, something happened that gave me a whole lot more appreciation for why the frog never realises.

Magda being overtaken by a slower vehicle in Kazakhstan

It happened as we drove slowly through a small village, on one of the main highways north.  We watched as a herder marshalled a collection of chickens, 3 cows, 2 goats and a donkey across the road.  In the other direction a small girl wobbled her way along on a bicycle, cars and trucks rumbling past while finally, two young guys drove a cart laden with hay bales and towed by 2 donkeys in front of us.  And all I said to Andres was “Should we get diesel in this town or the next one?”.  Somewhere between the boulevards of Paris and here, we had become the frog.  The whole world had changed, but slowly enough that we hardly noticed as it did.  That’s what happens when you travel by road.

Kazakhstan big sky

Well I’m going to start by having a little vent about the roads.
Worst.  Roads.  Ever.
How Magda even has all four wheels still on, let alone steers straight, is beyond me.  The official roads are so awful that on either side of the tarmac you will see a full car trail in the gravel which is usually smoother and faster than the remnants of the tarmac itself.  The only problem with these is as they were on the shoulder of the road, they would inevitably be tilted away from the road.  We would do long stints roaring along at a 15 degree angle, head against the window, just to avoid the tarmac.

Not one of the bad roads. Lake Burabay National Park, north Kazakhstan

Road works:  I dunno, maybe information about road work detours is communicated telepathically or something – however three times we ended up driving down a half build highway, past trucks, graders, rock laying machines, with that uneasy feeling you were somewhere where you weren’t meant to be.  However the locals were just as lost as we were!  No wonder the roads are so awful, everyone drives around on them while they are still being laid!

On our first encounter, we found ourselves cruising alone a suspiciously flat, smooth and perfect blue gravel layer past a grader that was smoothing it.   We carefully avoided the driver’s gaze as I hissed to Andres whether we had missed a detour sign.  Continuing on we were confronted by a pile of dirt that blocked the road completely.  Now where?  In the rear view mirror the grader had turned around, and like some 90’s horror movie was advancing at speed in our direction.  We frantically searched for a way out, and found a track off the perfectly neat blue, across some bumpy dirt mounds and past some machinery.  I was relieved to now see other cars following us (strength in numbers!) and we bounced our way around the dirt pile and on to what seemed to be a detour track.

Andres tries to blend in with the Kazakh locals

This can happen to anyone, but it happened to us three times!  Anyway enough ranting, suffice to say that the roads were horrendous, we spent many many hours driving by continually scanning ahead about 100 metres and back spotting for potholes, ridges, dips, bumps, rises and rocks.  And cows and horses and donkeys and chickens and pigs and dogs.  And bicycles and people and carts and pretty much anything else that could be put on the damn road.

Meanwhile, like the Ukraine, we were back in a police state:  road checkpoints were the order of the day.  In the 14 days we were there we were pulled over 8 times.  Mostly we were waved on when they realised we were tourists but a few had a go at causing problems.  After the Ukraine experience I was raring the level the score however.
Policeman Number 1:  something in Kazakh about headlights not being on.
Benn: [switches on headlights and smiles] “Oh, there we go!”
Number 1: [looks unimpressed] Something in Kazakh about stepping out of the car
Benn: “oh no that’s ok, I’ll stay here thanks”
Number 1: Something else about getting out of the car
Benn: “Can I see your ID?” [points to police vest]
Number 1: ????  Wanders off to get superior officer, who returns and gives me back passport and lets us go!
.
Number 2: Something in broken English about front windows being too tinted.
Benn: “Oh right, well car is registered in Australia, not Kazakhstan, luckily.
Number 2:  Something in broken English about not being allowed in Kazakhstan.
Benn: “Oh well, fair enough, write me out a ticket then” [beams at officer]
Number 2: [considers his position for a moment, before grinning back, handing back passport and waving us off]
Finally, we managed to get Nanna Andres (my nickname for his driving style) off a certain speeding fine (67 in a 50 zone, tut tut) by simply filming everything on the GoPro camera, which they didn’t like at all, and waved us on…

Stars over Magda, Kazakhstan

But we survived the roads, the police and all the other day to day nonsense of life on the road, and what is left are the best bits of Kazakhstan.  And it’s a surprising country.  Free of the soviet rule, Kazakhstan is on a mission to make a name for itself.  With a national ‘plan’ called 2030, and a bunch of oil to fund it, the country is building the infrastructure and foundation that will be in place and complete by the time the oil runs out (an approach to long term planning that a country I know and love should take note of).  That said, the reason the president can run to a 30 year plan is because he’s not the biggest follower of democratic principles, nor particularly open to opposition.  But that’s another story.

Andres being annoying, Astana architecture in background

From day 1 we were pleasantly surprised at Kazakh cities.  After the grey industrial cities of Russia, we arrived into the Kazakh city of Kostanay and realised what we had been missing from Russia:  trees!  Trees lines the streets, filled the parks, it reminded me very very much of leafy Vancouver, BC.  It made a huge difference.  We had horse (not dissimilar to kangaroo to be honest) and wandered around.  We noticed about half a dozen weddings going on, and this was something we noticed everywhere across Kazakhstan, 7 days a week;  weddings!  wedding cars, photos at monuments, wedding receptions, everywhere!

Me being annoying, the huge Lake Balquash in background

Our route took us via a beautiful national park in the north, around a lake.  Much of the north is steppe (steppe= grassland without trees) and our first few days had been uneventful.  But this park was one of the prettiest places I’d seen on the trip.

Astana was our next destination, the ‘new’ capital of KZ.  There was something odd about Astana.  Clearly built to impress, it reminded us of the movie Trueman Show.  It all looked fabulous from a distance, but close up much of the shiny office space was empty, the buildings along the boulevards had clearly been built very cheaply and quickly, and there was no one there.  We were the only ones walking past the massive Presedential Palace!  When you drove out of this shiny city the wide streets ended in dirt within minutes, and you were back on the potholed roads that the rest of the country had.  It just felt like a facade.  However it is built for 2030, and I guess they folow the philosophy of “build it and they will come”.  Time will tell.

All dressed up with no where to go? Astana architecture

While we were there, I’d decided I needed a massage (travelling is hard work ok).  I’d booked in at the nearby massage parlour, which seemed to be a hairdresser with a massage room,  but who’s judging.  In my mind I was heading for a nice hour or so of relaxing massage, work some knots out, it was going to be just what I needed.  I was vaguely surprised then when the massuer arrived wearing a white laboratory coat.

“What is wrong?” he questioned.  Scrambling to find an  “official” reason for the massage, and not wanting to just request a big flowery “relaxation” massage I whipped out the best malady that I could think of.
“Er, sore back, and um, neck.  Very tight, really tight… giving me headaches, definitely.”

Largest tent in the world, Kahn Shatyr, by Norman Foster.

He started to work on my back, “ah huh”ing every time he found a knot .  He worked his way around for about 10 mintues, then went for some kind of liquid that I can only describe as some kind of acidic deep heat remedy.  At first it seemed cool, and smelt just like eucalyptus.  He poured it on, wiped it around, lay some kind of papery sheet like I was a sausage roll in the oven, and wandered off, closing the door behind him.  Meanwhile the liquid was getting hotter and hotter, until I thought that if he didn’t come back soon I would spontaneously catch on fire.   This was not exactly what I was expecting.

Prayer trees, north of Astana

After 10 mintues he arrived back, wiped off the liquid (relief), did 2 mintues of massage, put another layer on and was out the door before I could stop him.   More burning for 10 minutes before he arrives back, another 2 mintues and some soothing cream of some sort, and he announces that he was done!  Not only that, but he then advised me I needed to come back for another 2-3 visits the fix “the problem”.   I can tell you the only problem I had still was the fact I never got my damn massage.  I of course promised I’d make an appointment soon.

Almaty cathedral colours

We headed south for Almaty, camping along the way by the side of a lake, which again we had to ourselves.  We’ve been getting good at locating camp spots, finding quiet peaceful spots by lakes and rivers.  A day off in Almaty to explore was of course impacted by the window smashing affair, however this couldn’t take away from the spectacular snow capped mountains rising up from the Steppe right behind Almaty.  These form the border with Krgystan to the south and China to the east, and (Andres tells me) run right around past Pakistan to be connected somehow with the Himilayas.  Geographical fact for the episode.

Soviet architecture, Kazakhstan’s ‘old’ parliament, Almaty

We headed north for the Russian border, and by now were camping most nights.  This was made easy by how unpopulated many regions within Kazakhstan were.  As the photos show, we had many pretty camping spots on rivers and lakes, and would always have them to ourselves.  Sadly there was much evidence of others, in particular little and rubbish.  Across the ex-Soviet states there is little awareness or care for the environment, and piles of rubbish would often be found in the most beautiful spots.

We galloped for Russia, crossing the border without issue.  After doing some research we took a very quiet border crossing, away from the main highways, hidden in the hills with no signposting or even hint of its existence.  From there we would avoid all the Russian highways, taking backroads east through the Altai Republic, and then south into Mongolia.  The Altai are a beautiful, and relatively untouched mountain range, with world heritage listing.  Stretching from Siberian Russia, down through Mongolia and China, they define the borders between these countries and Kazakhstan.  Permanenty snowcapped they make a welcome change the the Russian and Kazakh steppe around them.

Altai Republic, Russia

The drive through Altai to Mongolia was spectacular, I’ll let the photos do the talking, but for me they were the most beautiful site we have seen on the trip to date.  Our fifth mountain range crossing (the others being Alps, Dolomites, Carpathians and the Urals), and on the other side was Mongolia, the most exciting country yet.  For us, like the frog, the world had changed.  The faces were no longer European but Asian.  Around us were large Muslim cemetaries, adorned with cresents and domes.  The change had been steady and constant, but unlike the frog we were well and truely alive.  Magda was humming unfalteringly beneath us, as reliable as ever, and we were all ready for Mongolia.  As we passed through Russian customs and immigration, we drove through no mans land and arrived at the gate that marked the Mongolian and Russian borders.  The tarmac stopped.  And on the other side was nothing, bar a rough dirt track with some snowy peaks in the distance.

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