22nd of September, 2015
Desert, Camels, Oil, Old Russian Rockets? I have know idea what to expect from Kazakhstan, but we are about to find out, 6000km of it anyway. If the boarder control is anything to go by we are in for a chaotic treat. Being let free from the boarder to unleash on the streets of Aktau the sun was setting. Exhausted from a day of authority and officials a good relaxing evening in a cheap hotel was in order before the epic ahead.
Welcome to Asia, Kazakhstan is the first country on the journey that feels totally different. The Kazakh people are Asian, with a mysterious look, dark eyed, round faces with a hardness about them. The country feels the same, hard and mysterious. Totally removed from the safety net of New Zealand. Our journey is about to reach the next level.
We have nine days to get into Mongolia before our entry dates expire on our visas. With the Kazakhstan desert and the Altai Mountains of Russia ahead there was no time to waste. After choosing the northern route, apparently (that word again) the fastest. Although to get there involved driving north even west at times. This took us through the second largest oil fields on earth next to the Caspian Sea. Once on the open roads nothing stood in our path. Excited about the awesome roads, camels and oil pumps. So barren the horizon disappears into a haze like a mirage of the sea & sky.
The excitement of awesome roads was short lived as the road reality set in. I have a feeling this is going to be a taxing chapter of our journey, on both cars and patience.
Settling in for the first night camping in Kazakhstan, we gave our cars some loving. Time for a oil and filter change ironic really in one of the largest oil fields on the planet.
A night under the immense stars of the desert puts my Epic 800 sleeping bag kindly sponsored by MacPac to the test. This land is harsh, there is a reason nothing grows here, full of extremes and what we call exposure. Days are hot, nights are freezing, the temperature differences here blow your mind. It's hard to believe people would live in this environment, with 100 degrees Celsius difference between summer and winter.
We are treated to a little Kazakhstan magic as the desert sun goes to sleep and awakens, from dusk to dawn, mesmerising.
Pushing north before our much anticipated eastern caravan we hit Atyrau back on the northern shores of the Caspian. Built on oil, the stench of fuel the welcome matt. A quick pee stop brings curiosity to the strange travellers, again hospitality greets us as Wednesday (our host) invites us to spend the night in his back yard/storage room. Not a word of English and hard to access emotion, the arrival of Wednesday's son was a relieving icebreaker. Inquisitive I was enlightened on the political history of Kazakhstan. Falling under the power of a near dictatorship Kazakhstan has been ruled by Nursultan Nazarbayev since he ruled with the Soviets in 1990. Stories of scare tactics, son in-laws mafia style until his murder, family members given control of powerful oil and shipping companies. Another interesting fact, changing the capital city to Astana in the East. Rebuilding the whole city 20 years ago as his personal project, but also to bring more wealth to the staved area towards the east. Wednesday's story as a Soviet propaganda artist fitted his demeanour.
A great relief as our compass needle swung east, desert roads are calling. As we venture east, the roads become unmanageable at times, dirt tracks next to the roads become a relief from the broken Tarmac. A week of intense driving twelve hour days, some days covering 800km some 300km. Our only relief dusk to dawn, cheap fuel and friendly locals. Setting up camp under the setting sun, brings fantasy of ancient caravans along the silk roads and trade routes we are following. Pure respect is felt for the explorers, traders and nomads whose worlds brought them to this desolate environment.
Villages we pass or stop for a quick bite don't quite suit the healthy weather torn faces of the Kazakh people, to me more at home leading their nomadic lifestyle. The villages show again industry without leisure, lost and forgotten Soviet buildings and colourful brick boxes. Kazakhstan boosts the worlds tallest industrial chimney stack and just like the spires of ancient Europe every town seams to have its smoking pipe. The beauty of this country for me is the village farmer tending to his flock of sheep, goats or cattle upon his trusty stead. Living his pure yet hard life, spending the summer months preparing for the harsh winters.
Slow going with little change in surroundings, I imagine the doldrums wouldn't be to far removed. The crew handled it well although energy was running low, Kazakhstan took its toll physically and mentally. Personally my body didn't enjoy the hot long days, being thrown up down & round in round. I felt more for the drivers, who had to concentrate on the hideous roads hours on end. I was so proud of the awesome effort everyone put in to get through this immense country.
The last day Kazakhstan finally put an effort in, excitement of a new country was upon us, hitting Semey. Trees scattered the country side, the smell of change was in the air, or maybe radiation as the Russians were doing nuclear testing here up until 1998. The last little present Kazakhstan offered us was..... An exploding side window.
As we drove in the night towards the Russian boarder, my imagination played tricks on me. With haunting thoughts we approached on a dark broken road. Maybe to many Ian Fleming books...........