Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Crossing the Big Country of Kazakhstan (July 4-July 15)

It took us a total of 2.5 hours to cross both the Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan sides of the border. On the Kazakh side we needed to go through immigration and get migration cards, go through customs and get a temporary vehicle obligation and get vehicle liability insurance (we already had comprehensive and collision insurance). There were only three vehicles crossing the border at the same time as us and the border officials were very friendly. One even walked Stani around to all the different buildings and helped with translation. One of the bureaucratic steps left over from Soviet times is the necessity of registering your visa with a migration office (OVIR), but I had read that it was no longer necessary in Kazakhstan to go to an office since registration takes place when your visa is issued. The process was unclear in Lonely Planet, at one point they say it’s not necessary and another they say you need two stamps on your migration card to show you are registered. When we received our migration cards, the immigration officer stamped it once with a red stamp showing our entry date and also stamped our passports. I asked about a second stamp but he said “Not necessary.” We then continued onto the next stop, customs. I asked the customs official about a second stamp and he said “Not necessary.” If it had just been one official, I would have still been skeptical, but since two different guys told me it wasn’t necessary, I felt that this must be true (more on this later). I asked about insurance and a different official said, “This is just steppe” indicating that insurance would be a waste of money, but he said we could buy it in a large city if we wanted. The officials all wished us well, and we were on our way.

How exciting to be on our own again! The excitement wore off a bit when we realized our attention instead needed to be on the roads. They were terrible! The only positive thing was that unlike the last stretch of driving in Turkmenistan where you didn’t know which track to take, here there was a clear way, it was just a mess. People had made little side tracks to avoid the bad main road, and we ended up driving on these. Unfortunately the side tracks were really dusty and not so good for the car for extended periods of time. We drove for about 2 hours and then pulled off the road and set up camp in the desert

Typical road in western Kazakhstan

Our first campsite in the steppe of Kazakhstan

The next 2 days were pretty much just driving days on really horrible roads-gravel with lots of washboards. Our average speed was about 10 mph. It’s one thing if you’re driving short distances on these roads, but a totally different thing if you are driving on these all day and knowing that your car still has almost 2 more months to go and many more km to drive. There wasn’t much to look at scenery wise. It was like the official said, just steppe. The things we did see a lot of were necropolises (cemeteries), horses, camels (now with two humps instead of the one hump version we had seen in Turkmenistan) and oil rigs. We had a bit of a scare on July 5th thinking we may run out of gas. There had been gas stations fairly regularly up to Shetpe, but after leaving town, this changed and there were none for 128 km. We reached a small town named Sayotesh and thought there must be a gas station here, but all we could find was an old pump with 80 RON octane gasoline. We still had 187 km to go on presumably more bad roads and only a quarter tank of gas left. So, we filled up at the old pump, hoping the car would accept it ok. Thankfully it did!

Stani filling up with 80 RON octane gasoline

A necropolis

Wild horses

Our original plan was to head northeast from Dossor to Aqtobe, but we learn from several people that the road is very bad, so instead we head west about 100 km to the big city of Atyrau. What a nice oasis from all the steppe. Since we’re in a big city, we decide to try to find liability insurance. Thanks to a helpful hotel receptionist, we manage to find it at BTA Bank for 501 Tenge or $3!

Stani with our insurance agents and our policy

We walked around town soaking up all the different sites. The Ural River runs through the city separating the European side of the city from the Asian side. How cool! We even found a little taste of home, a TGI Friday’s Restaurant thanks to all the international businesspeople coming here for the oil. My chicken fingers were a little more orange than I remember them being in the U.S., but hey I’m not complaining.

This was a surprise-TGI Friday’s

In the morning of July 8th we meet a British motorcyclist named Graham who is riding his bike to Vladivostok. We chat for awhile exchanging travel stories - he’s a lot of fun to talk with. From Aytrau, he’s heading south to Almaty and we’re going north to Uralsk then west towards Aqtobe and Astana, so we exchange cell phone numbers and say maybe we’ll meet up again at some point. The roads are great-what a pleasant change! All around us are fields of wheat. This was from the 1954 Virgin Lands Campaign where Khrushchev decided to expand the land that could grow things by irrigating the steppes and deserts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. According to Lonely Planet, “Only under glasnost (openness) did the downside of this campaign become clear - degraded and over-fertilized local rivers and lands. By some measures, the problems of erosion, aridity and salinity are on a larger scale than those of the Aral Sea. One UN report estimates that the country has lost 1.2 billion tons of topsoil.”

Wheat fields

The next two days, are long driving days. The roads switch between good and bad. On the 9th, we camp very close to the Russian border. So close that we can actually see the lights of Russian factories from our tent. In a few more days, we’ll enter that big country - the biggest country in the world in terms of area. On the 10th, we stop for lunch at one of the designated picnic spots. It’s funny to me that the sign for these always has a picnic table and a pine tree-so far these spots have had neither. The sign makes these spots look so cozy, but in reality they are just a concrete parking lot usually with a ramp which you can drive up so you can examine the underside of your vehicle. Stani decides to drive up of one and noticed that the bushings for the front sway bar were torn pretty bad on the left and just starting on the right. With our long journey ahead, including the off-road tracks we would see in Mongolia, he said this was something we need to get repaired. We drive into the town of Rudny and find a Toyota dealership. Unfortunately it is Saturday and the service station is already closed but several employees are still there. The manager is really nice and speaks excellent English (he had lived in the U.S. for a few years). He gives us the name of the part written in Russian and the address and phone number for a Toyota dealership in Astana which is our next destination.

The next evening we reach Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Actually the president moved the capital from Almaty (in the southeast) to Astana in 1997 citing it was closer to Russia. Before this move, Astana was a medium size provincial city, but since the move, the city has been transformed into a modern international capital. We had heard that Astana’s new architecture was over the top, and I had visions of another Ashgabat, but I thought the city was really nice. There were interesting buildings, parks, lots of flowers beds and tasteful fountains. We end up staying in Astana 2 nights at a nice hotel with wi-fi (unfortunately our blog was blocked. Apparently the government has blocked Blogger because this is the main website the government’s opposition used to express their dissatisfactions).

In the morning of July 12, we drive to the Toyota dealership hoping that they would have the bushings we need. A young guy who speaks English helps us. It turns out this is his second day on the job! He tells us they can do the repair, change our air filter and change the oil all in one hour. We can’t believe it and are so relieved. Well it turns out that one hour turned into six hours (I think they had to have the bushings delivered from somewhere else), but in the end we are thrilled to have our car in good shape again.

Stani, the friendly Toyota serviceman and the torn bushings

Before we left the hotel for the Toyota dealership, I left my jeans with the receptionist to be washed. Little did I know that it would be such a challenge to get them back! That evening I asked the night shift receptionist if my jeans were washed. She didn’t speak much English, and I speak less Kazakh and Russian, so this simple act became a huge communication challenge. I tried to explain that I GAVE my jeans to the hotel in the morning and now I would like her to GIVE me the jeans back. She smiled and said “You give me jeans?” We even went up to our hotel room, I thinking maybe they had put the newly washed jeans in our room and she thinking I would give her my jeans. I gave up and concluded that maybe they hadn’t finished washing my jeans. The next day, the day we were planning to leave Astana, I again tried to get back my jeans from the receptionist. I again tried to explain that I GAVE my jeans to the hotel yesterday morning and I would like her to GIVE me my jeans back. She smiled politely and said, “You give me jeans?” Argh!!!! I was ready to pull my hair out and really started to wonder if I would ever see my jeans again. I really liked those jeans, and plus my clothing selection was sparce to begin with! There was a nice young woman who worked in the hotel café where we ate breakfast who spoke some English (the most of any staff at the hotel), so I decided maybe she could help me with my cause. I explained the story to here in front of the receptionist. She nodded and I was finally relieved that she could understand me. Maybe there was hope for a reunion after all! After a brief pause, she said with a smile, “You give me jeans?” Oh my goodness, here we go again. I was almost in tears. Several hours later, the receptionist who I had given my jeans to showed up and miraculously so did my jeans.

The reunion

We decide to leave Astana on the 13th, but first walk around to get a flavor of the city. We walk along the river to the newer section of Astana. We stop at a new shopping mall called Khan Shatyr , which is a big leaning tent-like structure made out of heat absorbing materials that will produce summer temperatures inside when it is -30C outside. The stores and other attractions (including a wave pool and sand volleyball) are still being worked on, but it’s pretty impressive. We walk towards the Bayterek monument and come across an art exhibit in the park just below the monument. It’s an international travelling exhibit called “Buddy Bears”. An artist from every UN country paints a life-size bear that somehow represents their country. The message of this exhibit is the importance of countries of world working together and getting along. We then continue to the Bayterek monument, a 97m tower crowned with a golden ball and take an elevator to the top. The views of Astana from inside the golden ball are superb.

The Bayterek monument in the distance

View of Astana from top of Bayterek monument

From Astana we drive ~400 km to Pavlodar, which we reach on the 14th. The main attraction here is the mosque, built in 2001 - it’s the biggest mosque in Kazakhstan. Lonely Planet says it looks like an intergalactic space station from the 1950’s sci-fi films with a green dome shaped like Darth Vader’s helmet. What do you think?

Mosque in Pavlador

We continue on to our last city in Kazakhstan, Semey. I can hardly believe we have made it across this enormous country. We check into Hotel Semey, our first real old-fashioned Soviet style hotel. It’s clean and we’re in good spirits. The feeling of contentment quickly vanishes when we receive a text from the British motorcyclist, Graham, whom we had met in Aytrau. His text his short, but the message is clear. He had been pulled over by the police for a routine traffic stop. When they checked his paperwork and saw that he only had one stamp on his migration card, he was suddenly in a lot of trouble. He said he spent the next two days in Astana working with the British Embassy trying to sort things out. In the end, they were able to help him get registered and receive a second green stamp on his migration card, but he had to dish out ~$100. What a major headache. He knew we only had one stamp because I had asked him if he had one or two stamps on his migration card when we chatted in Aytrau. Here we were ready to drive to the Kazakhstan/Russian border in the morning and now we had a major problem on our hands. We asked the hotel receptionist if they could register us but they said we needed to go to the police station and try to register ourselves. Nervously we walked to the police. The registration office was already closed but we could come back in the morning.

The next morning, we decide to first visit the nuclear memorial which was built in 2002 for the victims of the nuclear tests. Between 1949 and 1989, the Soviet military exploded around 460 nuclear bombs in a research center called Polygon which is west of Semey. There was an unprecedented wave of popular protest against the testing in 1989, which resulted in the closure of Polygon. Tragically the effects of the radiation (genetic mutations, cancers, weakened immune systems and mental illness) still linger.

Nuclear memorial to victims

After visiting this moving memorial, we walk to the police station. The door to the registration office is closed, even though the hours indicate it should be open. We manage to finally find an officer who speaks English and it turns out he works in the registration office. We tell him that we would like to try to register our visas and explain what happened at the border. He takes our passports and migration cards and begins filling forms. He explains that he will be able to register our visas for us, but then hands us forms that look a lot to me like they could be a police report. He wants us to sign the forms in several places even though nothing has been written into the form. Stani gets the good idea to call the US Consulate in Astana. A staff person is able to help with translation and tells us that these are in fact police reports, but that the officer is simply using these to give us a warning. We will not have to pay a fine or have any trouble this time, but if we come into Kazakhstan again and don’t register, then we will have a lot of trouble. He advises us to sign the forms which we do. We are then handed our passports and migration cards, now with the two stamps (a red one and now a green one). We breathe a huge sigh of relief. Thanks Graham for the warning!

Now we are able to continue the last 113 km to the border. The crossing goes smoothly, and we prepare to enter the 13th out of 14 countries for this trip.

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