I’ll start this post by explaining how we ended up crashing a grandfather’s birthday party in a home in the Kazakh village of Akmole.
We had been in Kazakhstan for about a week, having crossed the border from Russia easily and seamlessly (more later). We had spent four illuminating days in Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, getting a Chinese visa (more later, again), and getting some car repairs (of course, more later). We were just heading out of the city, with clean clothes, phone credit to spare, food stores topped up, and a good night’s sleep under our belts. Just needed to top up on fuel and we would be good for days of free-camping, which we are now quite used to doing.
In Kazakhstan, gas station attendants pump your fuel for you. You just go inside and pay, and a computer tells them how much and what to pump. So I told the front counter to give us 50 litres of diesel. Once filled up, we drove off.
3 kilometres down the road, Luke got that look on his face. Not a good look. “Engine’s a bit rough”, he said enigmatically, as the car spluttered to a stop. Luke coasted nicely off the road and we got out to investigate.
I’m darkly proud to say it was me who figured it out first, though Luke was only seconds behind. They put petrol into our diesel engine. Cue gasps from people who know that this is VERY BAD NEWS. If you didn’t gasp here, you should know that this can spell the end of an entire engine. As our friend Andrei says, “Caput. Caput.”
And this is where elements of luck and miracle start entering our story with an unbelievable frequency.
We had pulled off next to a tire shop. At the tire shop was a group of men, one of whom, Andrei, ended up being both a German-trained mechanical engineer – he now owns a fleet of trucks which he has custom built, but has also run a fleet of high-rise construction cranes – and one of the kindest human beings on the planet. Andrei didn’t get it at first, as he speaks German and Russian but not English. We marched him over to our car and made him sniff the fuel cap. Once the realisation dawned on him, he, I think it is fair to say, Freaked Out. He put us into his car and drove us back to the fuel station, our car remaining forlornly on the side of the road. We had a fairly polite shouting match with the fuel attendants. Andrei is a persuasive guy. He said the manager would arrive in 30 minutes, and in the meanwhile, he drove us to a mechanic friend of his, who gave us the skinny on what the possible prognosis could be from this fiasco. There were two options: not-too-bad or scrap-it-and-go-home.
After returning to the fuel station, we picked up the station manager – who, it turns out, was a good guy and wanted to help. Probably more of Andrei’s magic. We returned to our car to tow it – using one of Andrei’s fleet trucks – to the mechanic. This involved Andrei stopping 4-5 lanes of traffic (you never know how many lanes are really there, in Kazakhstan). The mechanics looked at it right away, with the gas station manager hovering nearby.
To cut a long story to medium length, we checked in on the mechanics every hour for a few hours. Each time, the prognosis became more optimistic. The gas station manager was paying for every bit of work. The mechanics were draining the tank, replacing the fuel filter with one of our spares, and flushing out the entire fuel line. The only thing that seemed to save us here was that we had half a tank of diesel left, so the petrol didn’t get too far into the motor. Also, that Luke had stopped as soon as he sensed there was a problem.
While we waited for the mechanics to do their voodoo, Andrei had to get some work done, and kindly took us along with him. He had parts to pick up, mechanics to supervise, and just generally seemed a competent, efficient, and jovial business director. We got to talk to him quite a bit through google translate, charades, broken German, broken English, and photos on our iPhones. We had a great time, surprising given the situation.
Once we had the car cleaned out, healthy, and ready to go, it was about 6pm – too late to leave the city and camp, so time to find another hotel in Astana. But Andrei had other plans – we were to go to his house, about an hour outside of Astana (or 10 minutes the way he drives), where they were having a birthday party for his father-in-law. We would spend the night with the family and leave the next morning.
We were more than happy to accept the offer, and we are so glad we did. Andrei’s family and friends are wonderful people who we will remember – and hopefully keep in contact with – as long as we have functioning brains. His wife, Tamara, speaks English, is an electrical engineer, and is crazy smart. I’ve never heard anyone pick up a language as quick as she did with us. Their daughter, Maria, is 8, and is adorable. She showed me pictures of her recent trip to Crimea with her Grandma, and of parrots she had seen in a zoo. The party attendees were a boisterous, good-natured group. They were very curious about our trip, and made sure we were eating and drinking heartily and continuously, with intermittent toasts. Andrei’s family seems to be a group of highly intelligent, extremely open people – the type who give you solid eye contact while they ask you insightful questions, in Russian or otherwise. They also scolded Luke for allowing his wife to do things like have blue hair and a tattoo. This was not behaviour they would allow of their wives, they happily explained. We also got advice from Andrei’s friend, the local police chief, to not try to bribe cops here in Kazakhstan. It’s a dangerous thing for foreigners to do, apparently.
Their house was gorgeous. Huge, well decorated, with a bountiful, enormous kitchen garden, and adjacent to a vast expanse of dramatic steppe. Andrei’s sister lives right next door; she had us over for a fancy tea where I was given rum that got me nice and toasty for the afternoon’s drive. Perhaps it’s because they have a police chief as a close friend, but they did not allow Luke to drink. What a relief.
Our hands laden with gifts from the family of Russian vodka, Kazakh chocolate, and home-grown vegetables and eggs, Tamara and Andrei showed us down the road and we finally said goodbye. It was like saying goodbye to our friends and family at home when we left for this trip – heartbreaking. Now, we will just send emails, and plan to return to visit in years to come, next time perhaps with children.
But wait, there’s more
Tamara, Andrei and company showed us exceptional hospitality that has made me love Kazakhstan perhaps more than any other place we’ve visited. But they weren’t the only ones. There’s a direct correlation between car repairs and Kazakh hospitality.
The first Kazakh friend was a young guy we met in a market, where we were shopping for – you guessed it – car parts. (New all-terrain tires, an extra air filter and some fuel filters, if you care.) He called us over to his stand and had a good chat with us. Our favourite google-translated phrase from him was “I am pleased with you.” He did invite us over to his house, but we were at that point consumed by car stuff and also did not yet understand the genuineness of Kazakh hospitality.
The second Kazakh friend we met through meeting his father at the tire shop where we were getting our brand-new BF Goodrich all-terrain tires, which, by the way, we love. Enquire for technical details, because I actually know and can tell you. Anyway, we were getting our wheels aligned and they told us some bolts on the wishbones were shot. We didn’t get a word of what they were saying, so a fellow called his English-speaking son. He ended up meeting us at our hotel the next day. We thought he was a mobile mechanic. Nope. He was just a super, super friendly guy. A recent college grad who was just about to take a test to enter training to become an air traffic controller. He came with us to the Chinese embassy to pick up our visas, and then he and Luke took at 6 hour journey through Astana to pick up car parts, visit mechanics, etc. They got some new bolts put in place. I stayed home in our cushy hotel, as our car only has two seats. I spent most of the day emailing people at home and telling them that Luke was on a mystery tour of Astana. We had a late lunch together when Luke and Beksan returned from their saga.
Other Kazakh friends came after we found out that the new bolts were not right. We found this out while almost losing our steering entirely (but not quite). Luke checked the car out on one of the ubiquitous roadside ramps, and couldn’t figure out what was up, so we looped back to a tiny village. We happened upon some guys in a security truck. Kazakhstan is the type of place where the don’t give you directions. They take you to where you are going. The security guys took us to a mechanic, who didn’t have the right tools. So the mechanic took us to another mechanic. These mechanics were great. They did the work right away – one of the bolts needed to have an extra spacer welded onto it, as it was jiggling, causing the wheels to be wildly out of alignment. They charged us a pittance. Then another mechanic went to collect his wife (who speaks English) and adorable baby. We took photos together.
Another Kazakh friend, non-car-related, was a gorgeously strapping fellow (the rumours are true – Kazakh people are super attractive). A director at an up-and-coming Chinese airplane engine company, we met him and his equally tall and attractive friend at the Chinese embassy. To pay for your visa, you have to walk across the city to a bank. Being Kazakh and not content to merely give directions, he walked us all the way there, in the middle of a busy work day.
In some ways, we hope not to make more friends in Kazakhstan, because that probably means something else has happened to our poor car. Perhaps it would be worth it, though.
Lessons learned, thus far
Our takeaways from all of the car stuff, by the way, include:
- The two most important rules of overland driving: Don’t Hit Stuff, and Pump Your Own Fuel. Both things we knew before, of course, from Luke’s farm education by Ken, mostly.
- We are firmly in Asia now; where car problems are generally solved by hammers and welding, and it is necessary for one to watch the mechanic at all times. That’s not just us, it seems to be a cultural norm. Being a mechanic here involves much more performance art and sociability than at home. Also, one should be prepared to make at least 3 mechanic trips per one car problem.
- More lessons to come, I’m sure. Even as I type this, we are bumping down a potholed dirt “highway”, and Luke’s not totally convinced the alignment is right yet. But that’ll be just more stories to tell y’all, I guess.
Just last night, Luke and I were discussing the fact that we feel like frauds. Overland travel is supposed to be laced with potential dangers, annoyances, 8 hour waits at border crossings, bribing police. It’s supposed to be HARD. We figured it had been easy in Western Europe because Western Europe is just easy; but we are bewildered to find it’s also been easy in places like Bosnia, Russia, and Kazakhstan. It’s a bit unnerving; perhaps all of the stories that make overlanders sound like badasses will happen in Mongolia and China? Maybe we just aren’t there yet?
Case in point – our Chinese visa. We planned to get it in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. However, I called in advance (for the 3rd time, just to triple check), and it turns out they are no longer issuing visas to foreigners. We panicked for a time, until we learned we could do it in Astana, Kazakhstan. Apparently it’s a nightmare – line up at 5am for a 9am open time, shove past Kazakh hordes, be interrogated by expressionless Chinese officials, wait days and then more days. Sometimes they don’t give visas to foreigners at all.
But it was easy. We arrived at 8:50 and were shown right in by a smiling security guard, past a few waiting people. We waited 10 minutes to be seen. They didn’t even ask us questions. They took our visa applications. Our aforementioned handsome Kazakh took us to the bank. We paid. We went back two days later, our friend Beksan in tow. This time the smiling guard laughed and made jokes at the horde of people waiting in a pack in a windy area; he made everyone move back but pointed out Luke, Beksan and I to break through the horde. We had our perfect visas within 5 minutes.
And the borders! It seems like going from Russia to Kazakhstan would be tricky, right? The Russian side was relatively quick and efficient. Despite the presence of a 5-acre car park for waiting, and an electronic booking system, we waited not at all. There was no one there. It took 1 hour, 3 checks, all easy. A guard even smiled once. On the Kazakh side, the smiling border guard said happily, “Welcome to Kazakhstan!” and “Australia, kangaroos!”, and shook our hands. He then assigned another traveller, a Kazakh fellow, to show us how to get through customs. He took us into the passport control building and directed us to cut in line in front of 3 or 4 waiting people, who politely said nothing when we did so. The next inspecting guard separated Luke and I, which wasn’t great. He made me stand 20 metres away while he directed Luke to turn on our camera, so he could look through our holiday photos with glee. Odd, but easy.
In a few days we’ll be going through the Russia-Mongolia border. We’ve heard it’s usually an 8 hour wait. We’ll let you know.
About the steppe
Today we have left Kazakhstan, back into Russia again. We’ll only be here for 4 days or so. We’ve just got to get across to Mongolia – Mongolia and Kazakhstan don’t touch. One must go through either Russia or China to get between them. Anyway, we want to tell you about Kazakhstan now that we’ve left.
Firstly, Northern Kazakhstan – we’ve only been to the north – is mostly open, grass-filled steppe, dotted with small dusty villages, with a couple small industrial towns, and Astana. The steppe is beautiful. When you drive off the road, you crush herbs underneath your tires, creating a delicious perfumed cloud around you. This is perfect for those who shower infrequently. Sometimes, it looks just like Australia, with the wheat fields stretching into the distance. Our campsites often even sound like Gowrie (Ken and Sue’s farm), with the trucks going past in the distance. Perhaps this is why we inexplicably feel safer in Kazakhstan than in Russia.
The steppe is beautiful, but boring driving. There’s not much to see – a curve in the road is exciting. A shadow from a cloud overhead is a notable addition to the landscape. We are very thankful when we pass a little village or cemetery to look at.
Astana is the capital of Kazakhstan and the showpiece city of Nursultan Nazerbayev, who I like to refer to as the country’s “friendly dictator.” (He has been in power since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has been largely a very positive force for the country.) If you tell someone from Astana that their city is beautiful, they invariably say, “Yes, it is new.” And this is true -it’s only been the capital for 20 years, moved from the older southern city of Almaty, apparently to be closer to Russia.
I think we saw Astana mostly as Nursultan Nazarbayev would want us to. We stayed in a glitzy hotel, affordable but not insultingly so, with polite, multi-ethnic and English speaking staff. We were in awe of the enormous, architecturally inspiring buildings. We were daunted by the scale of the city, as we realised that walking 5 blocks requires an hour. And the Kazakh people, as you have read, really turned out.
There was also the weird side of it being a new city. Huge new apartment blocks, all around the city, were empty and had no shops, schools, or roads around them. Big spaces felt abandoned. Many of the main roads had no line markings. The most lived-in spaces were in the older parts of the city, in markets made out of shipping containers and in traffic-congested suburban streets. Most tourists probably don’t go to those parts. But us, we needed car parts.
The end of Russia
Kazakhstan: From Russia, to Aktobe, to Astana
Our adventure with Andrei, and outside of Astana