Not so Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Day 74: 31/05/19
Location: Turkistan, Kazakhstan
Miles Driven: 116
Our route took us past the ancient silk road town of Sauran (pronounce saw-ran and not like in Lord of the Rings). The city, once the biggest in Kazakhstan, dates back to at least the 10th century. It was abandoned in 1515, and now just sandy coloured shapes of the old city wall remain. It truly was an amazing sight, with only minimal restorative work we could still get a feel of what the walls once looked like, and how big the city had been. To make it even better, we were the only people there, not a single other tourist, or souvenir stall in sight.

Sauran city walls

It is possible to camp nearby to the ruins, so we drove around looking for a place to set up for the night. The area was exceptionally hot and dry, and there was bright yellow grass everywhere. Not wanting to camp in the tall grass, we decided that the tarmac parking area at the front of the ruins would probably be the best place. We parked up, and decided to have lunch under the shade of the awning before walking around the ruins. Suddenly Chris (who is not one to jump or easily scare when it comes to critters) leapt off the ground, grabbed me and pointed down. A huge bright yellow and green, part scorpion part spider, horns poised, ready to kill, was making its way towards us at the speed of light. Despite the 40 degree heat and our lack of air conditioning, we launched ourselves back into the car and Chris turned on the engine so that we could escape, back to England, as far away from that monstrosity as possible.

Sauran

During our first ever conversation, I agreed that I would drive to Australia with Chris on one condition: that he would save and protect me from all of the spiders. He was not living up to this promise. Although, after seeing that one I couldn’t blame him. We sat in the car for about twenty minutes, manically trying to Google (without internet) the spiders of Kazakhstan, and whether or not they were deadly. We have since discovered that the beast we saw was a Kazakhstan camel spider. It is far too traumatic for me to put a photo of it on here, so if you want to see it, have a google.

With no answers from our Google search, we decided to be brave, have lunch (in the car), and then go for a walk around the ruins. We swapped our flip flops for trainers, and trod carefully. We were not however brave enough to stay the night. We absolutely did not want to see another one, and even more so, did not want to find one in the tent. We drove on and came across a beautiful camping spot, shady, breezy, green, and looking like the English country side. Even without the scorpion spider, we felt we had made the best decision.

Days 75-78: 02-05/06/19
Location: Shymkent, Kazakhstan
Miles Driven: 20
Whilst in Shymkent we stayed in a lovely little hostel, owned by a just as lovely Greek lady who had created a European-esque haven in Kazakhstan. After 9 days of driving through nothing, there was a long list of jobs to do.

It took us two hours at the self service car wash, using the best snow foam ever created to wash off 76 days and 11 countries worth of mud, dust, and grime. The inside of the tent was also in need of a clean, so, much to the surprise of everyone around us, we put up the tent and hoovered inside. Whilst I hoovered in the stifling heat, even hotter inside the tent, Chris stood outside shaking hands with the numerous locals who, impressed by the tent and the fact that we had driven from England, wanted to say hello and see if we liked Kazakhstan.

Another urgent job was the air conditioning. We drove to a nearby Subaru garage, figuring that if they couldn’t do it, they might at least be able to point us in the direction of someone that could. Chris hoped that all it needed was a re-gas, and the boss told us it would be 15,000 tenge (£31). Dropping all other jobs, four men surrounded the car and connected it to the air-conditioning-gas-measuring-device (or something a bit more technical). The car only needed a small amount of gas, so the boss re-quoted Chris 2000 tenge (£4) – even better. Despite being a two minute, one person job, we now had about 7 people surrounding the car. Re-gas done, the boss asked for a photo, we tried to pay but our money was refused. A job that would have cost us around £60 at home, here cost us the price of a smile and a photo.

We also managed to squeeze in a sightseeing day during our time in Shymkent. Despite not having many ‘sights’ to see, we had an enjoyable day walking around the city, through the parks and seeing the various monuments scattered throughout. After a day of walking in the sweltering heat when we returned to the hostel we treated ourselves to a mars bar ice cream – after two months of very few treats, it was absolutely delicious.

Day 79: 06/06/19
Location: Kularyk, Kazakhstan
Miles Driven: 62
Shymkent is fairly close to the Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan border, however so far during our trip we have found that the road leading to/from border crossings can be in very poor condition. We wanted to get to the border early the next day, so we left Shymkent and drove further south, aiming to wild camp a few miles from the border.

Following the instructions to a wild camping spot on our trusty iOverlander app, we found ourselves driving up what looked to be somebody’s driveway. We stopped, about to make a u-turn, when a Lada with a man inside pulled up next to us. We weren’t sure whether he wanted to speak to us or not, so rolled down our window and gave him a smile and a wave. He got out of his car, came over to our car, and asked if we spoke Russian. He did not speak English and we do not speak Russian. He wanted to know where we were going, so (we presumed) he could point us in the right direction and out of his driveway. We tried to explain that we were looking for somewhere to camp for the night. He pondered on this for a while and then told us to follow him down to a field where we could stay. We parked up, said our thank yous and he drove away.

A few minutes later, he walked back over to us and watched whilst we set up the tent, asking us questions about where we had been, where we came from, whether we had children (which he was very surprised that the answer was no). His name was Raha and he had three young boys, some cows and some horses. We both found it equally amusing that in Kazakhstan the people ate the horses but not the cows whereas in England it was the opposite. After a few minutes of conversation he invited us to his house on the other side of the field, and to eat dinner with him and his family.

Raha had quite a large house, of which we only really saw one room – where we were invited to sit down. His Father and two of his children were there and considering the situation, did not appear too surprised to see two random English people sitting next to them watching TV. Raha left us for about 10 minutes and then came back into the room with bread and a traditional Kazakhstan meal of pasta with horse meat and fermented mares milk as a sauce. Luckily he seemed to know that the milk might be a bit of a stretch for us, and whilst he encouraged us to try it, he did also bring out ketchup too. After a while, his children became braver and came over to say hello and shake our hands. Dinner was finished with some sweet tea and chocolates, and then Raha, his Father, and Raha’s eldest child (aged 6) walked us back to the car. To add to their generosity, they tried to insist that we slept in their house rather than in the car this evening. Not wanting to impose too much, we hoped that we didn’t offend them when we tried to explain that we wanted to get up early in the morning to get the to Uzbekistan border, so we would rather stay in the car.

Raha on the left & his Father on the right
Just after we finished dinner – Raha’s Mother and Father

When we got back to Natalie, we showed Raha’s son and Father the tent. We said our goodbyes, and thought they had left, but within less than a minute Raha’s son had brought over about 5 or 6 other children eager to show them inside the roof tent too. We did some quick thinking and got out a mini bowling game that we had brought with us – it worked as a brilliant distraction and the roof tent was almost completely forgotten whilst they all took it in turns to play. Another half an hour or so later, Raha came back (probably wondering where his children were) and rounded up the children clearly telling them that it was time to go and leave us in peace. We spent the next half an hour sitting by the car listening to the children sniggering behind the trees, trying to see how close they could get to us without us noticing.

Before leaving, friends and family often asked about the dangers of the countries we were going through, and whether or not it would be safe. Our answer was always the same – the most dangerous (and probably hostile) countries we would drive through would be the ones closest to home. Picture the same situation in England – two completely unknown foreigners unable to speak your language, driving a strange car into your driveway and claiming they needed somewhere to stay the night. We might not like to admit it, but very few people would say sure no problem, camp in my garden, come over for dinner, stay in our house if you want to. We went to bed with full stomachs, appreciative of this once in a lifetime experience, overwhelmed by Raha’s kindness and hopeful that in the future we may be able to pay it forwards to someone else.

A brilliant distraction

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