Days 57 to 62: 15/05/19 – 20/05/19
Location: Rylsk to Ozinki, Russia
Miles Driven: 906
Despite being nearly 1000 miles, our journey through Russia (from Ukraine to Kazakhstan) was more or less a straight easterly line on more or less the same road. For most of the journey all we could see in any direction was a panoramic of fields stretching out to the horizon. Each day Chris would say “that’s the biggest field I’ve seen in my life”, only to find a bigger one a few miles down the road. We drove through only a small section of the country and yet it was absolutely mind boggle-ing-ly huge. The tractors ploughing the fields looked like little ants, until we overtook them on the road and saw that these two were giant. Not really going through anywhere of significant interest, our aim was simply to get to the other side before our visa expired. The few times we did interact with locals (mainly at petrol stations, and when we were pulled over by police) communicating was somewhat difficult. Very few people spoke English (fair enough), however they did not seem to understand that we could not speak Russian. Instead of attempting to help us understand by pointing, using signs, photos, or google translate, they just continued to repeat the same words in Russian until we either nodded or gave up. It didn’t take long for us to adopt the same strategy – us speaking in English, them speaking in Russian, neither trying to make it easier for the other, and both parties deciding at the end of the conversation that the other must have understood.
The two times that we drove past a police checkpoint we were stopped. Our front number plate has been broken since Italy (it snapped in two after catching on Chris’ foot when he was getting out of the tent), and this appeared to be the reason that we were pulled over. Although, with the number plate attached, it is even more obvious that we are foreign and we probably would have been stopped anyway. The first set of police men spoke a few words in English. They checked our insurance documents and were understanding when Chris showed them how we cannot put the number plate back on. They suggested we stick it to the windscreen, but the stickiness of the duct tape melted in the heat of the sun, so this resolution worked for all of 5 miles. The second policeman did not care about our paperwork and was not interested in letting Chris show him why it wasn’t attached. He pointed to the car, and to the number plate and seemingly wanted Chris to fix it there and then whilst he flagged down other cars. After 10 minutes of us standing there doing nothing, he gave up and let us go. The policemen (and border guards) of Russia had exceeded our expectations: at no point were we asked for a bribe, bribery hadn’t even been hinted at. The weather was finally being good to us, diesel was about 50p per litre, and the main road was in surprisingly good condition. After 5 days of driving, we made it to the Kazakhstan border.
Day 63: 21/05/19
Location: Ozinki, Russia – Uralsk, Kazakhstan
Miles driven: 98
The Russian side of the border here was strikingly different to that of our Ukraine-Russia border experience. There were only a couple of cars other than ourselves, but even so the process was highly efficient. On arrival we waited inside Natalie until the people in front of us had their passports checked, then we went to the window and handed over our passports, V5 and the white form we had been given when we entered the country. Once these had been returned, our car was checked over, we were asked if we had any guns, and then directed to the large X-ray building. The border guards were helpful, and told us what we needed to do rather than expecting us to already know or work it out for ourselves. There was no queue for the X-ray building as we were the only car that had been directed here. We drove in, got out of the car, waited for a few minutes whilst it was X-rayed, and then we were able to leave Russia and enter no man’s land.
Next, the Kazakhstan side. Again, the man at the first barrier was friendly and made sure we understood what we needed to write down on our white form when he gave it to us. We drove to the next window – passport control. Here a man stood outside and once he had established that we were English asked if we were from London or Liverpool, the only two places in England. We attempted to explain Suffolk and Northamptonshire, but it was a bit much, so we settled for “London”. The man inside the little building inspected our passports. Chris’ passport was first and the man paused, getting another person in the office to look at it, questioning Chris whether or not it was the original. Chris’ “yes” was sufficient though and a minute or so later he gave Chris a beaming smile and said “Welcome to Kazakhstan!”. The customs man gave the car a quick inspection, only really pausing at the soap dispenser attached to the back door, and that was that.
Driving away from the border, a man standing in the middle of the road, gave us a wave to stop. We slowed and rolled down the window and suddenly four men (who had appeared from nowhere) were leaning into the window asking where we were from. The youngest was over the moon that we were from England, and kept repeating “oh mi gott, oh mi gott”. The men were selling car insurance, and another “oh mi gott” was said when we refused 15 day insurance and asked for 30 days. “30 days in Kazakhstan?! oh mi gott!”. He appeared thrilled that we were here, and very excited to be selling us car insurance. Whilst I spoke on the phone to one of their English speaking friends, Chris did a quick search to check how the prices stood up to what other people typically paid for insurance here. The price seemed fair so Chris went with them to their office, behind a truck not in sight from Natalie. The office turned out to be the back seat of a Lada (the small old car that nearly everyone we had passed in Russia owned). It was fully set up with a laptop and printer. Chris negotiated them down another couple hundred Rubles (about £2), they printed out a very unofficial looking form, and passed it to Chris through the rear window of the Lada. The younger (oh mi gott) man came excitedly back to the car (where I was sitting with the money) and presented me with a coin. We had already told them that we only had Rubles, and no Tenge, and he gave both of us 10 Tenge (2p) so that we had our first Kazakhstan money. Then he gave me an extra 50 Tenge, because he liked me best. We did not have any Sterling coins with us, but I found a European cent and gave it to him, pushing him over the edge “oh mi gott, i love you!”. They shook our hands and gave us huge smiles as we left – either because they were just genuinely happy to meet us, or because they had just made a bomb selling fake insurance to gullible Brits as they crossed the border. It was impossible to tell either way.