Breakfast: tea with bread, butter and jam (welcome to Kazakhstan). We were in no particular hurry, with several days to get to Almaty, where our drive shaft was to be delivered. Our only plan was to withdraw cash and get hold of WiFi to check the status of the shaft. We headed to Shymkent, a medium-sized Kazakh city fairly close to the Uzbek border. “Shymkent” means “Fertility (shym) of the Goat (kent)”, however, a mistranslation in the early days of the USSR from the regional dialect has led to a lasting misunderstanding. When Russian artists and architects began to move to the city during the 1960s they began to erect oversized tributes to what they understood to be the meaning of “Shymkent” – “Water (sym) Tulip (khent)”. A 25ft metal sculpture of a tulip is one of the city’s main attractions (as listed in Lonely Planet); it is surrounded by powerful jets of water that hose it day and night.
Walking around the city, we spotted what appeared to be an abandoned Mongol Rally vehicle outside the Shymkent Hotel. After asking after them at reception and receiving no information, we left a scribbled message on their car and moved on. We camped out at a café called “Adana” for much of our first afternoon in Shymkent. The food was adequate and not a rip-off, they served milkshakes and they had WiFi.
It was in Adana’s air-conditioned interior that we discovered that the estimated arrival date of our shaft was the 1st September – two weeks hence. This would really mess with our visa dates, forcing us to out-stay Dom’s Kazakh visa and to get out of Russia much faster than we were comfortable with. We had bought delivery in 1-3 working days. The current estimate was 10 working days. We were puzzled and frustrated. It seemed like some kind of Mongol Rally punishment for shipping parts rather than struggling on with the bodge. It had been almost too easy to fly a new bit of the limousine a third of the way across the world and now, supping cool, banana-flavoured beverages in Shymkent’s leafy centre, we were being smote by the Gods of Adventure.
Whilst we contemplated our situation, we were temporarily stalled by flashbacks of previous teams who had made it home with origami suspension and wheels made of duct tape, engines fortified with toothpaste and papier mache exhaust pipes. Teams who had just kicked holes through the floor of their cars and just run the final 1000km. Who had harnessed sparrows and tumbleweed for extra horsepower, used jet propulsion fuelled by flatulence, melted desert sand to make new windscreens, had sawn their cars in half and ridden them like motorcycles, who had used grappling hooks to sneak tows behind freight trains, who had launched their cars into unmanned flight through pure force of will and love of the unknown.
In the spirit of these pioneers, we ordered a second drive shaft through an even more reputable delivery company and paid the premium to ensure a rapid delivery. Then we booked into the cheapest hostel we could find and bought some local beer and cheese. To consolidate our victory over the Deities of Farce, we employed Jack’s girlfriend and her mum to co-ordinate the delivery of the new shaft whilst Dom’s Dad Terry worked in cahoots with Ollie’s Dad Graham to try to speed up the delivery of the old shaft. For some time we discussed whether we needed to go nuclear on the situation, but we reserved our secret weapon for the next adventure that tried to befall us.
With a 4 person logistics team in England co-ordinating the delivery of two drive shafts on different time schedules, we went for a very posh beer at the Shymkent Hotel with the Mongol Rally team whose car we had written on earlier. That beer almost bankrupted us and we returned to the hostel in agreement that we would never try anywhere new ever again. It was just too much of a risk.
In the morning, we dropped Jack back off at Adana. Jack was in charge of monitoring the drive shaft situation whilst Ollie, Steve and Dom went off to insure the car (you can never be too careful).
Nomad Car Insurance is Kazakhstan’s largest provider of insurance. Founded by Genghis Khan in 1066, it began insuring precious metals and livestock, from whence Genghis’ company derived its nickname (Gold ‘n’ Herds, which over time became “Golden Horde”). As usual with many of the businesses in Kazakhstan it seemed that it was bring your child to work day, those without children often bring close relatives or friends, typically these visitors outnumber the workers by two to one. This was true of Nomad Insurance. While the paperwork was being completed Ollie tempted some of the children to arm wrestle Dom despite his protests. Our experience buying insurance was the polar opposite to what we had been subject to in the UK. Our broker didn’t react when we described our vehicle, and had no issues with Jack being employed as a “lion tamer”. We opted for third party, fire and Uzbek protection for 15 days. After a ten minute flurry of photocopying and countersigning we had our cover arranged for just under £3. This was not a mistake.
Insurance in hand we drove back to Adana to find Jack still nursing his carrot and beetroot milkshake, there was nothing to report on the drive-shaft situation. Continuing our administrative crusade we departed for the ‘Migration Police’ building. For unknown reasons visitors to Kazakhstan are required to register with the police within five days of entering country, or face an indefinite jail sentence. We were able to find the correct office on our third attempt and joined a short but very wide queue towards a small booth, it was around this point that we began to grow concerned by the number of babies present. Every other patron present seemed to be accompanied by at least two children under the age of three, some had books with photographs of their children neatly catalogued and grouped into sets. We conjectured that the babies may have been required as a sacrifice for the administrative process. By then we had reached the front of the queue, it was here that we discovered that despite being an office that deals solely with non-Kazakh citizens no one in the building spoke any language other than Russian.
After the usual to-and-fro it became clear that in order to register we were required to hand-write a letter to the head of immigration police, Sergeant Tamir. No paper or pens were provided and it was apparent after a brief enquiry that a postcard was not appropriate. Instructions included “make sure you enquire after the health of the Sergeant Tamir’s children” and “it is polite to complement the Sergeant’s moustache at this time”. Once we had submitted our letter we were shooed into the corridor where several posters displays had been prepared. A tasteful multimedia collage showing the office workers shooting guns and sitting at their desks with absurd stacks of papers surrounding them.
Worrying that we would never see our passports again, a reconnaissance mission was made into the office. A member of staff was seen copying every detail from our passports manually into two separate ledgers: the process would evidently take some time. Not wanting to waste the day we took the opportunity to work on our squatting technique. When in Central Asia, the squat is an important skill to master, and not just for bathroom excursions. If you ever visit the ‘stans you will notice that public benches or stools are very rare. This is because all are trained from a young age in the art of the squat. When executed correctly one can sit comfortably for hours in a single position. The key, we found, was to ensure that your entire foot is in contact with the ground, heel included. Initially you may find it difficult to achieve the full flat foot squat, but a slight incline or ‘practice ball’ can be used to work on your form. Once you have accomplished the basics you can move onto more advanced moves such as the elevated wall squat or the ‘inverted’ squat. Attempt with caution.
Despite lacking sacrificial toddlers, we were issued with our registration slips (with no bribe requests) and were soon on our way. With fully registered visas, we were now able to enjoy Kazakhstan to its fullest. Our experience was that registering your visa can be helpful in accelerating your acquisition of the Russian language, alleviating “the Shaslick Squits”, adding flair to your air-born acrobatics and accentuating your ability to alliterate.
Carefully picking our way across town, back towards the safety of Adana, we came across Kazakhstan’s leading supplier of vintage fashion. It is our understanding that US intervention in Iraq had ignited a deep affinity amongst the Kazakh people for attitudes in the American Deep South. In this way, it was possible to buy Texan ‘cultural’ T Shirts by the kilo in some stores in Shymkent. Either due to a shaky grasp of street fashion, the actual size of the average T Shirt in Dallas and its environs, or a cunning eye for a broader profit margin, the T Shirts were only available in XXL or XXXL. They included such slogans as “2009 Patriots Club Charity Waterfight” and “George Town High: Go get ‘em you buzzards”.
On our sweet, sweet return to WIFI we had our first setback on our DHL parcel. Apparently the address we had provided was not compatible with DHL’s system. One more exceedingly slow cup of tea later our shipment problems were supposedly solved: the estimated shipment time was given as three days.
Confident that a new shaft was winging its way towards Almaty we were eager to get back on the road. We packed up and set off towards the old capital, stopping for supplies on the way (vodka, kiwi juice and soviet Nutella).
As the morning’s administrative processes had taken longer than expected, it was night-time before we made it out of the city. Not wanting to search for a camping spot in the dark we elected to stop at the next truck stop and convince the owner to let us sleep on the floor.
Jack, spotting a knife and fork sign on the side of the road, performed a handbrake turn onto a small side lane; it continued into a small gravel lot. Several trucks were parked up and a crowd of men were gathered in a corner. We turned on the neons and approached the group slowly. Putting his moves on the first trucker we came across, Dom asked if we could stay the night. After they had looked the limo up and down (around 45 seconds) they gave us a price of 500 Tenge (£1.60). Straight-faced, we discussed this amongst ourselves. Before accepting, we thought it prudent to ask where we would be sleeping. A finger indicated the cabin of a lorry. We understood from this that we would all be sharing the cabin with the bearded, heavy-set owner of the finger. The cabin appeared to be decked out with cushions and other sleeping paraphernalia. Straight-faced, we discussed this amongst ourselves.
To buy ourselves time, we took to showing them the route. As Jack took them through the journey, one of the possy responded to his demonstration in French.
“Ohhh, Parles-vous francais?”
“Je suis francais!”
Jack used his broken French to discover that a gentleman, (il s’appelle Jill) who we had thought to be another of the truckers, actually owned the entire space and, as you might well expect, had made his money importing fridges, German buses and lambs. Spending two months a year here, away from his home in Nice, he and his business partner made pilgrimage to this particularly dusty suburb (read: stretch of gravel by the side of a motorway) of Kazakhstan’s third (or fourth) city out of habit. We took note; even habit formation of the transcontinental variety can sneak up on a person. Jill also spoke Spanish, which was more convenient for Jack, Steve and Dom. Ollie (not speaking Spanish) would say something in English, which Jack would relay to Jill in Spanish, who (not speaking Russian and his partner not speaking Spanish) would relay to his partner in French, who would in turn pass this onto the staff (who did not speak French, Spanish or English) in Russian. There was something symbolic of our journey in this (apart from the Spanish part. We didn’t go through Spain.)
So there we were, having a Skype conversation with the brother in law of the French truck stop owner and his family, in Kazakhstan. Then Steve, Ollie and Jack stripped off and got into the Sauna. We ate some watermelon for dinner and settled down in an ant-infested small-melon-storage room to sleep.
That night, Dom wanted somewhere to brush his teeth. All he needed was a sink. In the middle of the (completely unlocked) bathroom was a naked Turkish trucker wearing only what looked like a thin, black utility belt. The trucked looked up as Dom entered the bathroom, but otherwise continued with his business. The room was full of steam from a shower running in the corner. Dom backed slowly out of the room mumbling something that, whilst neither English nor Russian, could probably only be transcribed using the Cyrillic alphabet.
Back in the small-melon-storage-room, Dom roused Steve:
Dom: “Steve, have you seen a sink anywhere?”
Steve: “Uhh yeh, there’s one in the bathroom. But watch out for the naked trucker with the utility belt.”
This precipitated Jack rapping on Jill’s office door. Together, the two of them climbed a small mound outside the building, and returned with a bucket of water. Chatting happily, the bucket slung between them, Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after. And Dom never did get to brush his teeth.