After exploring the western province of Mangistau in August, we now crossed the border into Eastern Kazachstan. The old Kazach capital Almaty was well worth a quick visit; we marvelled at a richly decorated orthodox church and wandered around the huge Green Bazar, browsing all the different meet counters and cheese stalls. We even found something very much resembling old Dutch cheese!
We continued to the Charyn Canyon in the southeast of Kazachstan. We didn’t have very high expectations but it was a little paradise! The Charyn river once found its way on the plain steppes and carved out this pretty canyon. After a steep slope and manouvering under a bridge of rocks, we found a riverside BBQ space; perfect.
Once more discovering how huge Kazachstan actually is, we spent a few days in the car heading north. We felt a bit sad because we knew we would have to give the Altai mountains a miss due to lack of time. The sunshine soon made way for rain and icy cold wind. The changing weather provided some excellent photogenic scenery. Eventually, we reached the city of Semey. This place has a bit of a dubious past; it used to be a nuclear testing playground in the old Soviet days. The hot bath (yes!) water in the hotel (luxury!) looked pretty clear though.
We had to sacrifice one shock absorber on the appalingly bad roads of Kazachstan. The part of the car frame where the left back absorber had been attached, broke off. Fingers crossed for better roads in Russia...
Ok a little behind on schedule...we are in Kyrgystan at the moment...but Yes! We made it to Kazachstan! After three days of research, many phonecalls to ‘insiders’ (thanks again Steve) and just hanging around the harbour area, we were able to get our hands on a golden ticket to cross the Caspian Sea on a big cargo ship. The boat left the port at about 2 AM and the crew proudly presented us to their “surprise”; a private cabin with shower! Luksus...
We arrived in Aktau in the middle of the night and waited for customs to open the next morning. After a big treasure hunt involving collecting about twelve stamps from five different locations, we were free to move into the car search area. After donating a small "souvenir" in the form of a big beer bottle, the border official opened the gate for us to explore Kazachstan.
Kazachstan: in search of Sultan Epe
We met Heike and Julian, who are travelling in their old German Mercedes van. After a breakfast of mini lobsters offered at our car door by the local fisherman, we were up for the challenge of heading down to Shakpak Ata; an underground mosque only reachable by tiny sandy and rocky roads. Surrounded by wandering camels and flocks of wild horses, we found our way through the windy steppes. There were quite a few resque-the-van moments which was good fun.
We camped at a beautiful little lake and survived the biggest rainstorm we experienced so far. We couldn’t easily get back out of the swampy valley the next day, so all the tools that had been left unused so far, proved very helpful. Winging, pulling, digging and sliding our way across to find the necropolis of Sultan Epe was an adventure on its own.
East of the Caspian coastline, there are some beautiful canyons in the region of Mangistau. The further land inward you go, the more windy and sandy it gets. We thought we were in the biggest storm at the lake, but it got much and much worse on our way further east. The darkest sky pulled over and within minutes it was pouring with rain. We had to pull off the road and hide at a petrol station. We thought we were safe, but the asbestos roof came flying off and hit the car! Willem did not turn out to be so waterproof, but nobody got hurt in the end.
Bits of the road we were taking towards the Uzbek border got completely washed away, and we were holding our breath while driving through the fast flowing water. We scouted the best drivable route and The Mercedes van bravely followed. At one point it almost lost its lisence plate, which was easily solved by twisting in a new screw. But that took the attention off what had really happened; they had lost their Auspuf! (this is German for exhaust pipe – love the word!) The rocky roads didn’t do the van any good, so garage service was needed. (not Willem this time – this is his type of terrain!) We had a goodbye dinner with Heike and Julian and we set off to the Uzbek border.
In the meantime...
Tomek suddenly developed a “lactose allergy” but I drank my first fermented camel’s milk! And I survived. Borat would be so proud.
We discovered that there are 42 types of melons. FORTY TWO! There are melons everywhere. If you wake up in the middle of the night and feel like eating melon, no problem, there will be a melon seller within a 300 meter radius. And people take great pride in finding the best one in the pile.