Nothing to see in Kazakhstan

Day 64: 22/05/19
Location: Uralsk, Kazakhstan
Miles Driven: 0

Our first couple of days in Kazakhstan were spent catching up on various jobs: withdrawing local currency, purchasing a local sim card, washing our clothes and bedding at the launderette, and filling up the fridge. We stayed in a cheap hostel that was cheap for a reason. The decor was simply bizarre, and not much thought had gone into the layout of the rooms – our private room had a large double bed, and two bunk beds. The bathroom door would not open fully due to the positioning of one of the bunk beds. About three of the twelve light bulbs worked. The walls had gold trim randomly placed around the room, as if someone had started to add a decorative feature but changed their mind half way through. Despite being a room designed to sleep up to 6 people, it only had one electrical socket. The walls were paper thin and you could hear every speck of phlegm that our neighbour coughed up at 5:30 every morning.

Our hostel room in Uralsk

The boss spent the entire day asleep on the sofa behind reception, waking up in the evening so that one of the girls working there could use the kitchen as a doctors office, and the kitchen knives to cut open sachets of liquid that were injected into him. Naturally, the needles were not discarded of in a sharps disposal container, but put in a bin bag outside the front door, which was quickly ripped open by animals. Leap frogging over the needles was an obstacle we had to get used to whenever we needed to go to the car.

Mural in Uralsk

Day 66: 24/05/19
Location: Almaznoye, Kazakhstan
Miles Driven: 200

We hit the road – the only road that we would be driving on for the next 1200 miles. As soon as we left Uralsk, it was a vast mass of nothingness. Completely flat, we had a 360 degree view of miles upon miles of dry, partly sandy, partly grassy land. After 180 miles of exactly the same view, we pulled off of the road into an old quarry that offered us a hidden place to camp with some protection from the mild wind.

Quarry camp – it wasn’t quite as grey and dark as this photo looks!

Day 71: 28/05/19
Location: Qamystybas, Kazakhstan
Miles Driven: 172

Now settled into our Kazakshtan routine, our days were spent in the car listening to the Harry Potter audio books. Each day we would drive around 200 miles before setting up camp – driving during the hottest part of the day to escape from the scorching sun. The majority of the road was in good condition, with the occasional section of potholes that appeared out of nowhere and required us to go from 90 km/h to 20 km/h extremely quickly. The roads were not very busy and the landscape remained the same, although it now featured camels. The only significant change in the scenery were the truck stops and petrol stations that were positioned every 100 or so miles.

The roads were mostly in good condition, with very few other cars on them.

We had two main concerns. Firstly, it was almost 40 degrees and our air conditioning did not seem to be working – not a lot could be done about that until we reached civilisation. Secondly, with the distinct lack of anything, we could run out of diesel, food, and/or water. Diesel was especially concerning as we’d been told that often the fuel stations did not have any fuel, or would only allow each customer 10 litres. Whenever we had half a tank left, we stopped at the next petrol station in the hope that this would avoid us being caught short. We were lucky, and all of the petrol stations we visited had enough diesel to fill the tank.

The landscape was like this as far as the eye could see.

680 miles from Uralsk, we arrived at the nearest and largest town, Aralsk – which was neither very near nor very large. Unsurprisingly, there was no supermarket, so we ventured into the covered market to stock up on supplies. It was a pleasure to walk around a foreign market in a far off land without being, for want of a better word, hassled by every single market seller. Noticing that the fridges selling dairy products were not switched on (despite it being 35 degrees), and the meat, also not refridgerated, was being stored in buckets on the floor, we stuck to dried food and vegetables.

First we had statues of camels at the side of the road…

Aralsk is noteable for being an old fishing port north of the Aral sea. Formerly one of the largest lakes in the world, it has shrunk away to almost nothing as a result of the Soviet government diverting the rivers to irrigate surrounding agriculture. It has since been famous for its ship graveyards, where shipwrecks lay in the desert where the water used to be. Now however, these ships are no longer there – the metal is far more useful to locals for fences and walls than for a reminder of what once was.

…and then we had real ones!

Once again stocked up with enough food to see us through to the next supermarket (a meer 300 miles away), we found a beautiful place to camp on the edge of Lake Qamystybas Köli.

Lake side camping

Day 73: 30/05/19
Location: Kyzylorda, Kazakhstan
Miles Driven: 164

Just like in the UK, other drivers flash their headlights to indicate a warning – most often that there are police ahead. Driving towards the city of Kyzylorda, we were given several warning flashes. Low and behold, within half a mile, we were pulled over by the police. Many people have told us that the police in Kazakhstan are corrupt, and will stop all of the foreign cars and ask for ‘fines’. It was therefore with some apprehension that Chris got out of our car and followed the police officer into the police car. I hastily turned on our reversing camera so I could try and see what was going on. The police officer beckoned for Chris to get into the car, and Chris strategically placed himself with the door still open, one leg out of the car. Just as I was thinking ‘that’s a good idea, well done Chris’, the door closed – Chris had been told to get in properly and shut the door.

I didn’t need the reversing camera to see what happened next, suddenly the police car was on the road and driving away from me with Chris inside. Time stopped and I simultaneously thought of everything I would need to do to get Chris out of the prison he was being driven to: get into the drivers seat, follow that police car, do not let it out of my sight, call the British embassy, go go go. As I was mid jump from the passenger seat to the drivers seat, the police car did a u-turn, and drove back to its original spot across the road from Natalie. Maybe they knew that I wouldn’t be able to set off as quickly if I had to turn Natalie around first. I tried to watch out of my peripheral vision, not wanting them to know that I was watching them and I was poised ready to jump into the drivers seat and rescue my boyfriend from Kazakhstan jail. After a tense few minutes they did another u-turn, this time parking just behind the car, and Chris was free to go.

It turned out that the policeman wanted Chris to go into the car and close the door because it was too hot to stand in the sun, and the police car had ice cool air conditioning. We had been stopped for speeding, and Chris had questioned how to know what the speed limit is (Kazakhstan has not yet realised that signs of speed limits may be a useful addition to the roads). The police man had started to drive to show Chris where the speed limit changed, and Chris had nodded to say that he understood so that they did not drive any further. The policemen could not speak very much English, so Chris baffled them by talking in English a lot, using lots of random hand gestures, and pointing at all of the different sections on the V5, hoping that they would find it far too much effort to ask us for a bribe. It seemed to work and once again we left the police without a mention of a bribe or fine. Unsure whether we had a lucky escape, or if we had over-exaggerated perceptions of the level of corruption within the Kazakhstan police force, we were nonetheless glad to be back on the road, crisis averted.

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