Yesterday’s brief excitement about tarmac was shortlived, “road with coating” as our map calls it, turns out to have quite a liberal interpretation of “coating”. Coating includes dirt, sand, gravel, mud, craters, rubble and most other things that aren’t tarmac. Indeed at one point the road we were following stopped rather abruptly as the bridge over a river appeared to be missing entirely.
We spent a lot of time on the dirt and sand roads today, which made for much faster progress (and a lot more fun), up until the point Bertie decided he’d had enough and beached himself on a large rut. It turns out he’s not actually a Land Rover, as much as he might want to be. Fortunately an enormous Russian truck passed by and dragged Bertie out. No damage appears to have been done, its all soft sand.
We camped up on a hillside, stopping fairly late. On a nearby hilltop we can see other campers, potentially other ralliers, but we can’t see how to get to them. It’s the rocket launch tonight so we’ll keep an eye out and see if we can see anything here.
Finally finally finally we have found proper roads. With tarmac and everything. It is beautiful. Progress starting to be made now, the map we purchased which shows the quality of roads (rather than just their route number/official status) is proving invaluable, and we’re avoiding anything but the highest grade of road quality now. It makes for a more convoluted route, but travelling at 80-90kmph twice the distance is better than 20kmph over dirt, sand and worse.
After a few rough days we were all in need of a decent wash and a few comforts, so we stopped fairly early near a large lake, just south of Aralask. It seemed to be the cloesest thing to a pleasure beach we’re likely to see in Kazakhstan, the water was warm and perfect for a refreshing swim
Day 20: So that’s the noise a camel makes.
We were awoken fairly early by a large herd of camels. That’s not a phrase I’ll get to use again any time soon I suspect! We were most interested to learn that camels make a noise at all, its sort of a cross between a cow mooing and a long groan.
Anyway, now heading a longer way round but on allegedly better roads (we are slightly dubious, other teams have described the road we’ve been directed onto as a the “road of death” due to its ridiculous potholes) we set off trying to make up some lost time. We’re potentially quite a few days behind schedule now, which is eating into all our contingency time.
We missed a turning at a small town which got us a bit lost for a while, we found our way back to the main road, to find the main road had turned into a 100m wide pothole ridden track, it was a case of weaving between the least damaging looking potholes and braving the sand/dirt tracks at the edges where posible. This was the “road of death” we’d originally been trying to avoid.
We spotted a European looking car with a stupidly overloaded roofrack behind us, and slowed to have a look as we’d seen from a distance a few vehicles that looked like they could be on similar rallies. It turned out to be a Mongol Rally team, in a small corsa. We shared expletives about the road, they were probably worse off than us with their Corsa hugging the ground, but at least they had air con!
We played cat and mouse with the Mongol team for quite a while, on the rough we were faster, on the rare smooth bits they could fly past us. They also stopped to take lots of photos of camels. Have they not seen a camel in the middle of a motorway before? They told us there was a rocket launch planned at the cosmodrome in East Kazakhstan (where the Russians launch all their space missions) for Saturday, sadly it doesn't look like we’ll make it at this pace.
Eventually we grew further apart and we continued on alone, we stopped at one point to donate a ratchet strap to a stranded Kazak car-on-tow whose tow rope had broken. Eventually we camped up in a crater not far from the main road. We’ve seen quite a few teams from the Mongol Rally whilst stopped. Guess they must all be following a fairly rigid route to have seen so many in one day. Seems a rather dull way of doing it ;)
We’re doing everything we can to try and pick up the pace today, as we get used to Bertie’s offroad capabilities, the style of driving and the terrain we can get more speed on the dirt tracks and stop less to check our ground clearance, size up dirt tracks and embankments etc.
Its still ridiculously slow progress though, previous teams seemed to have got through Kazakhstan in 3-5 days, and we’d worked to a similar schedule, but we have no idea how they’ve managed it! We’ve been stopped a few times and offered directions – we’re definitely going the right way (and the best way) but we can only hope the route improves ahead or we’ll be in Kazakhstan for approximately forever.
We camped up fairly late near Emba, under the watchful eye of a herd of horses, who nodded their approval of our pitch.
Kazakhstan is tough! It’s a vast, vast wilderness and the roads are continuing to trouble us, they have been a bit better today but still extremely challenging, and very very slow going. There’s some confusion about how long we can stay in Kazakhstan before having to register our Visas (and more to the point how important that is), the extended stay in Russia has also put us around a day behind schedule so we’re just hoping we’ll be able to pick up pace a little as we get used to the driving technique here (theres a big road, you can pretty much drive anywhere in it you like to dodge the potholes, then there are wide gravel verges, used for overtaking, undertaking, slow vehicles, parking, or just in place of the road where the gravel is actually a better ride..)
We’ve also seen our first camels, initially quite exciting but now they are everywhere in huge herds, like the over livestock we’ve seen mostly just roaming free, crossing the road as they please and generally getting in the way! Unlike other livestock they seem to take delight in running out in front of you just as you pass them and watching you slam on the brakes before sauntering off. Cunning creatures, shame they look so ridiculous.
Well today was an interesting day. We set off trying to take the more direct route to the Aral Sea by heading essentially due East, we purchased a better road map of Kazakhstan and set off on our way. The roads quickly deteriorated to the worst we’ve ever seen, in fact it became the norm for most people to drive on dirt tracks either side of the road, rather than the road. After a while the actual road disappeared, and dirt tracks is all that was left.
Turns out Bertie’s not the ideal off road vehicle. We quickly discovered his ground clearance is limited (we grounded out on an ENORMOUS mound, he did a great job going up and down, just didn’t like the bit on top, in fact it broke one of our spare wheel carriers). He’s also not fond of soft sand, bumpy gravel, or most other off road terrains it turns out. Dual wheels on the back do make him better than it could be, and we ploughed on regardless along some hairraising tracks, making incredibly slow progress and with no real idea, other than a compass bearing, of where we were going.
The few locals we saw were very friendly, lots of pointing at maps and warnings about bumpy tracks. Eventually we found a small ranch and decided to ask for directions, at least to confirm we were where we thought we were on a map. They were very friendly, invited us in for tea, but essentially told us with our van we shouldn’t continue this route as we were lucky to have got this far. They showed us a better route (the long way around, but apparently “good asphalt”) and we realised Bertie’s true calling, and gave five of them a lfit back to the nearest major town (a 2 hour drive!). You couldn’t do that without a Minibus!
As we arrived back in the town, Kulsary (essentially where we had started the day from) we found ourselves inadvertently in a Police chase, unaware that the car behind us flashing and tooting us was an unmarked police car, or indeed the swarm of other cars behind him also tooting and flashing. We pulled over to turn around (we’d missed our turning) and were swarmed by Police officers! The locals’ we’d been giving a lift to straightened everything out, we weren’t quite sure what we’d done or what was going on, but everyone seemed to be smiling at the end.
After all that we’d only travelled about 100miles, mostly in a circle, and camped up not far outside the town again.
We had a bit of a lie in seeing as we had no real plans for the day, it was a good chance to catch up on some missed sleep from the night before and prepare ourselves mentally, practically and physically for Kazakhstan and Mongolia!
That said, we didn’t get off to a great start, Tom failed to locate the free breakfast, we then spendt several hours trying to locate a laundrette (with no success, we’ve bought some soap powder and a bowl instead) and our attempts at being touristy didn’t do much better, with a trip to the Kremlin (cross between a castle and a big church) a bit of a disappointment with not a lot to see and a lot of building works underway.
Russia, it seems, has a very varied definition of a café (spelt kaФe locally). The previous night the hotel “café” appeared to be more like a failing nightclub, with laser lights and pumping music late into the night, we’d also been turned away from a “café” the day before for not meeting a dresscode, then being laughed at for ordering coca cola. We thought we’d just been unlucky, but today we tried several cafes, the first also appeared to be a strip club, the second appeared to only cater to children’s parties, others looked particularly uninviting, eventually we ended up in a German-beerhaus-“café” where we continued to be laughed at, but eventually translated enough of the menu to order an tasty meal.
After that we headed back to the hotel, picking up some Russian beer (horrible) and bread (heavy) for a late tea. Caught up on route planning, interneting, etc and planning an early night ready for tomorrow.
We arose after a bit of a lie in, enjoying our hotel, even if it is rather basic. Hotel breakfast was also basic, but filling with plenty of stodgy Russian bread. We returned to the garage with Bertie, they seemed surprised to see us, despite telling us to come back and have the rest of the work done!
The repair took a long time, “rare parts” (it’s a Ford engine, not that ridiculous right?) but when eventually finished Bertie was running better than even, with no engine or fan wobble anymore. He’s got a whole new engine fan assembly, its obviously not quite stock parts but they seem to be working. The mechanics were friendly and we exchanged stories using Google Translate, they advised us of the police in Kazakhstan (“fucking goats” was the translation), and of the poor quality of roads,.
When we eventually got out of the garage we headed straight for the border (via a rather precarious pontoon-river crossing), the Russian side was the smoothest border crossing yet, friendly English-speaking guards all stamped with no question about staying past the end of our migration cards (due to the delays in Astrakhan) and only basic vehicle checks.
The Kazak side was more confusing, somehow we were let in without migration cards which confused the whole system, but again we got through without massive problem.
We were shocked by the stark contrast between Russia and Kazakhstan. Russia was, despite some nuances, essentially very western and not dissimilar to a run down European city area. Kazakhstan couldn’t be more different, ramshackle villages comprising of mud huts, dirt tracks and paths linking houses and villages, and the roads. My god the roads. We’ve never seen anything like it, and we’ve been through some rough roads!
In other countries, there may have been vast deep craters, bumpy worn roads and gravel sections, but here its all of those, all at once, all the time. Theres often no way around cavernous potholes, and we find ourselves driving all over the place to find the path of least resistance, rarely getting above 40 kmph.
We camped up off a “main road” following a sandy track for a km of so. Some cows are keeping us company.
(Rubbish internet, so all photos on Facebook only sorry!)
Day 15. There’s a Snake in my Tent
We awoke to find ourselves camped in the middle of a vast wilderness, cattle roamed free on the horizon, but apart from the main road we’d turned off there was no sign of civilisation for miles around.
We trundled on towards Astrakhan and the Kazak border, we’d decided not to pass through Volgograd as Google maps indicated there was a more direct route not shown on the SatNav, this has shaved a good 400km off our route, but still kept us a safe distance from the disputed regions closer to Georgia.
Berties been having a rough time today, after the mud incident of yesterday he’s looking a bit battered, his engine fan is still wobbling around, we’ve not been able to fix the windscreen chips. We’ve been treating him to non-Euro diesel now though, full of yummy sulphur. Probably not doing emissions any good, but it’s cheaper and he seems to run better on it.
When we got to Astrakhan we decided to take him to a garage and get the fan fixed properly, our bodges haven’t worked and the noise is only getting worse. Whilst he’s not overheating (impressive given its been over 36 degrees here today) it’s not worth the risk of it getting worse in the even more barren Kazakhstan. We found a suitable garage, and after much pointing, clucking of tongues, laughing and head-scratching we left them trying to find a replacement fan.
After some nervous waiting, and lots of banging and crashing the Russian mechanic declared that he had done a quick fix, but he needed a part which wouldn’t arrive until Monday morning to finish the job. We decided to stick around and get it done properly, abused some free city-wide wifi, booked ourselves into a last minute super cheap hotel deal for the weekend and bedded down for the night with some tasty(?!?) fish jerky.