We just made the Kazakhstan/Russia border by night fall. It was a little windy and some of the coldest weather we've experienced since Europe. The Kazakh guards were all very friendly, and unusually thorough. Our car got its first semi-decent search, they got us to take everything out of the boot and even had a look at the spare, though not really checking the rest of the car. As ever they asked beforehand if we were carrying any heroin. We proceeded to passport control where my two passports were given even more attention than normal. Slowly more and more senior officials were called, until a small huddle formed, all looking at my passports in puzzled silence, as if they were trying to crack a particularly hard maths problem or crossword clue. The trouble is, once they've decided there's a problem they can't really just let you through without loosing face, you have to come up with some new piece of evidence for them to go "Aaaah, that's ok then." Eventually I pointed out, for the second time, that upon entering the country I'd had both my visa (in my old passport) stamped and my new passport stamped, and we were on our way.
Russia is a serious country and I was expecting a serious border, but it was actually one of the easiest entries we've had. The easiest I would say, very quick and straight forward.
By this time it was 9pm and very dark. We'd always planned to camp the other side of the border as Novosibirsk was quite a drive away, and we'd had to leave Kazakhstan as you have to register after five days and we were on our fifth day. So we drove a little way into Russia, turned into a side road, drove enough of a distance to be hidden from the road (so we thought) setup camp and had noodles with egg for dinner. Again.
We were awoken by the sound of a vehicle. It was definitely coming towards us. I knew it was going to stop at our tent. It stopped at our tent. There was a shout. Probably in Russian. I reluctantly unzipped the door. There were three Russian soldiers with guns standing around their Lada 4x4. Kai got up and I started to pack away our things. We didn't share much in the way of language, but once they'd seen our passports they left. We weren't sure if they wanted us to leave or not, but three guys with guns worked pretty well as an alarm clock and it was past 7am so we decided to leave, without even the cup of tea we'd offered the soldiers.
The drive to Astana was very long but fairly uneventful. If you have a look at the map you can see we drove around a very large lake in the south of the country, which was an absolutely beautiful perfect turquoise colour, not unlike the Kazakh flag, maybe that's where it comes from.
Darkness fell between 7 and 8 when we still had a considerable distance to go. By that point we'd driven for about 12 hours and covered about 3/4 of the 1100km (passing our 10,000th mile on the way). Passing through Karagandy there were a couple of signed detours along surprisingly bad roads, considering that we were travelling from Kazakhstan's biggest city to its capital. At one point I was following a couple of cars along a flyover when they drove around a small road block. I followed, not thinking much of it. Then we came to another road block and both cars turned off the road. I followed. The road got smaller and smaller until it was barely a dusty track. We crossed several railway tracks. Kai started to freak out. Just as I was beginning to wonder if we should turn around we found tarmac again, and eventually met the main road again.
Reaching Astana at midnight we managed to find a hotel very quickly, and went straight to bed. We'd been driving for 16 hours.
The stories of Astana we'd heard in Almaty led me to imagine something along the lines of Ashgabat, lots of new but empty and useless/already fading buildings. But actually it was pretty normal as things go. Kai and I went to see the Norman Foster "tent" this morning. It looked disappointedly small from the outside, but it does manage to contain a six story shopping mall. As a measure of how bright it is here, I took a picture inside the shopping mall at ISO 100.
We're now rushin' to Russia. We'll probably camp tonight, hopefully inside Russia, and make Novosibirsk tomorrow.
I was fearing the border crossing to Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan, just north of Bishkek and most of my fears came true*. I would like to call it the worst border crossing I've been to, though all in all, despite some confusion, we crossed in probably 2 hours, which is pretty remarkable. Still the fact that people in camouflaged balaclavas are milling around the Kazakh side armed to the teeth was a bit unnerving to say the least.
We filled up without issue and on we went to Almaty [Pronounced Al-Murray]. We then spotted a Mongol Rally ambulance in a scenic lay-by (above). We stopped, chatted and with the 3 girls and 2 boys of that team [They hadn't seem to have decided on a name] and they kindly made us some Earl Grey tea. Yes, they were English too. They had been in Kazakhstan for 3 days already, and were taking it slow.
We made it to Almaty, a place I actually visited 7 years ago, to be met with my old Russian Kazakh friend Ivan. I incorrectly remembered Almaty as being quite small and initially I felt confident I would find the centre. Second time around Almaty seems to have changed dramatically. Many more cars and buildings.
Ivan did find me and on we went together with the 3 Icelanders to find an apartment. The first lady swiftly excused herself from offering a flat after seeing us... 3 of us had long beards, all of us had tans, shorts and looked pretty ragged.
Eventually Jamie and I stayed at Ivan's and we found a place for the 3 Icelanders really close to city centre. Not without incident, since we had dinner before where we all had a glass of beer. Ivan then said, in no uncertain terms that we could not possibly drive, since Kazakhstan is zero tolerant on alcohol (which we didn't know, apparently enforced by police using just their noses). We tried to go out though a couple of us still had diarrhoea and the bar we initially went to had a private function. At 1am we were all glad to get some sleep. What a long day...
Speaking with Ivan the next day, he seemed incredulous that we have driven all this way. Through Kyrgyzstan which he regards as being very unsafe, and then onto Russia which is 3 days solid drive away. He also informed us there is a petrol crises in Kazakhstan, making it hard to find fuel. Not again I thought... most of central Asia and even Iran can have long queues for petrol. It was particularly bad in Uzbekistan. Though we have avoided most issues so far, I guess mainly due to friendly locals sharing private stock.
The days we spent recovering and catching up on the few days we were off the Internet. The Icelanders left for Astana yesterday (Sunday 28th), though I was too ill to leave. Also Ivan's mother was very kindly cleaning our laundry.
It's Monday morning now and we've packed up after enjoying a couple of poached eggs for breakfast. It's time for the 16-20hr drive north to Astana.
* False. Kai told me that the Kazakh border would be the most corrupt and dodgy border that we would encounter. I was asked for $10 in order to re-enter the border after accidentally leaving it, but I didn't pay and we didn't lose any money or possessions, unlike many other borders that we have crossed so far.