DAY 1 in Almaty
The three adventurers awoke to discover Jack’s kebab lay, untouched, in its protective packaging. Kicking him awake, they sought answers. They had risked arrest, (almost) fought a man from China, disrobed in an upmarket nightclub, jumped off a moving car, walked at least 6km and carried a rather pungent kebab with them, complete with onion to garnish, for some 6 hours; all in order to satiate Jack’s hunger. And this was how he chose to repay them.
This was the day our shiny new (second hand) driveshaft was supposed to arrive. We checked the tracker. It was in Leipzig, Germany! That’s 11 hours of flight time, with one change to get to Almaty. Barely checking our stride, we pushed on with the day through hangovers so dense you could tile bathrooms with them, so debilitating we could speak only out of the corners of our mouths and so aromatic we’d render any given space Kefir.
When we eventually left the hostel, we were immediately confronted by a particularly busy road. A road that we had been assured ad nauseum was inaccessible. A small ring road was either pointlessly circuiting the hostel inside the obstructive ditch, or the train of 4x4s and people carriers was coming from somewhere beyond the territory it marked out. Crossing the moat, we also noted that the deserted street, which we could not by any circumstances park on the night before, was encrusted with vehicles (in places three cars deep). We had lost our antenna in vain, and now our car was stranded in a dank side alley. Reluctantly, we elected to leave the car where it was until the shaft had arrived and we could actually do repairs. Given our best idea of the arrival time of the shaft, this was not felt to be a substantial risk.
We had a complete list of errands and Jack, typically the best-prepared of the group, had meticulously created a route map for us to tick these off. We needed a mosquito net, insect repellent, a roll mat, coffee and wanted to see Almaty’s bazaar. Jack had also located Burger King and KFC and knew the fastest route to that area of town. Probably still feeling a little uncomfortable about our 100% McDonalds record in Tbilisi, we ate at a small local bistro by popular objection. Four twenty year olds standing awkwardly at the counter, pointing hesitantly through the reinforced safety glass (are they protecting the food from us or vice versa?), whilst aged, bemused locals look on. It was as though, looking for a British secondary school canteen, we had accidentally invaded a central Asian retirement home kitchen.
Almaty’s bistros are not especially complex and follow a fairly standard pattern. You can see the food, you have a tray to put the food on, and there is person behind the counter who does the work in between. However, to the bistro-neophyte who does not speak Russian or Kazakh and who attempts initiation into this ritual through an alcoholic haze, the process can be fairly lumpy. Firstly, seeing is not necessarily understanding. Kazakhstan’s opaque soups and miscellaneously meaty stews obscured by thick oily glazes introduce an element of chance and guesswork. Are those brown lumps some kind of gelatinous vegetable or are they the flesh of something, long-dead, which once had eyes? Are those orange bits flecks of oil or carrots in the final stage of disintegration? Is the beige, grainy mound, rice, bulgur wheat or fine, watery sawdust? In the swirling maelstrom of that yellowy soup: what animal lies submerged in wait to ambush your naïve taste buds? Gird your loins and clutch your wet wipes, dig deep and politely ask for your food to be microwaved for a few seconds beyond the standard 4 seconds (apparently the Kazakhs like their soups a shade colder than lukewarm, their pre-cooked stews ‘bleu’: moist and cold.)
All of this said, Ollie rated that first meal in Almaty amongst his all-time favourites on the Rally. The portions were generous and filling and probably a shade more nutritious than a Whopper Meal.
We traipsed on. The heat allied with Steve’s footwear woes (blisters) to retard our expedition. Almaty is just the wrong size. Too big to comfortably get around on foot, too hectic to cycle through, too small for the absolutely stunning, tragically underused underground metro to have been worthwhile. In common with almost all of the Central Asian cities we had visited, save Samarkand, Almaty is a disciplined grid of low rise buildings. Unlike Nukus or Shymkent, it does have several nuclei, which takes away some of the diffuse hopelessness of the place and makes it feel more city-like. Nevertheless, everywhere you ever want to go in Almaty is at least 2km away.
This was also the case with the camping shops that Jack had spotted. With a roll mat and mosquito repellent purchased and after an over-long sit down in the comfiest folding fishing chairs that Kazakhstan has to offer, we picked out a café. There are two things in Almaty that you never have to walk far to reach: Karaoke Bars and cafés. Korea meets France.
So there we were, in Kazakhstan, supping whipped cream and chocolate concoctions in a shady courtyard, playing chess. Waiting for our drive shaft to arrive by aeroplane and trying to decide if we could ever walk again. Not having a limousine is so much hassle.
At around 4.30pm we contemplated going to the bazaar. The bazaar closed in 30 minutes. It was a 40 minute walk. We wandered back to the hostel. We picked up pizza on the way home, bullying the staff there to stay open an extra half an hour to make us pizza. Steve and Ollie ate the renowned Kazakh delicacy: horse pizza. Then, caving to exhaustion, we began something that would ultimately signal the end of adventure, which would suck the ambition and energy from us and render us room-bound for the next 9 days. We began season 1 of The Wire.
DAY 2 in Almaty
The drive shaft was starting to grind. It was a spear, plunged deep into our flank. It was a spike anchoring us to Almaty. It was such an unwieldy, awkwardly shaped piece of metal that at Leipzig, Germany, highly qualified staff had failed to fit it onto the plane and had sent it back to the East Midlands. Apparently, when they had looked at the 50cm x 15cm x 15cm box-shaped box containing the drive shaft, and then looked back at the 8,000cm x 1,000cm x 1,500cm freight aircraft they just didn’t think it would fit inside. Not even under the pilot’s seat. They had tried to chop it in half using a Rover suspension set they had lying around but hadn’t quite managed it. “You told us it was a Volvo drive shaft” they had hollered down the phone to the flustered East Midlands staff who had sent it on. East Midlands had in turned phoned DHL. A staff member there, reading through the email which Dom had sent them thanking them for saving the trip, with the addendum “don’t screw up”, had, in his intense distress over the incident, smashed himself repeatedly over the head with the telephone until unconscious. This incident resulted in the reclassification of the drive shaft from “car part” to “weaponised customs obstruction”. There would be further ramifications down the line.
We took the news quite badly. It is fairly expensive to repeatedly ship shards of hardened steel 8,000 miles on the fastest possible schedule with the best known delivery company available. To this point, we had swallowed the expense as pertaining to the only breakdown we had encountered: we knew the car was going to break down at some point and were prepared for the resultant cost. But we had bargained on the Rover, rather than delivery companies, causing us the problems.
Meanwhile, the first drive shaft we had ordered showed no obvious sign of having progressed.
No longer happy with the location of the limousine, curled up in its thief-infested, CB Radio-aerial-hungry cul de sac, we set about trying to tow it to the hostel car park. Ollie and Steve had discovered a back route circumventing the moat along which the car could be towed to safety. Even though, as the crow flies, the limousine was only 300m from the hostel, in line with Almaty Standard Distance (ASD) we would have to tow the car over 2km. We splintered into three tactical squads to set about commandeering a local to tow us. Whilst Steve and Jack sat on the car and looked bewitchingly in need of help, Ollie went one way up the street wielding a tow rope and Dom went another. Steve and Jack drew first blood, receiving an offer from a group of friendly road workers who were repairing pot holes without safety equipment nearby. They had at their discretion the ricketiest truck Almaty could produce. The wooden shit-wagon was probably itself mostly held together with tow rope and there was no way the driver would be able to see the limo being towed behind it.
Politely postponing a verdict on the offer, Steve and Jack also befriended a local who took Dom into a nearby basement. There, in the dank, unlit passageways, he gave Dom over to second man who showed him into what looked like a cross between a surveillance cell and a recording studio, strewn with wire and synthesisers, with two aging Kazakh men nestled inside. The shorter of the two directed for Dom to wait outside the room, before leading him to a padlocked door, gesturing unintelligibly and turning him back out into the daylight. After 20 minutes or so, Dom returned to the car. Encountering the first local there, he was lead back into the basement. Enquiring with the second local (aged synth guy), he was brought back to the padlocked door, now unlocked, containing locals three and four. Three was a young, English-speaking woman called Alyona, four was her rugged Russian-speaking friend.
These wonderful human beings assisted us in moving the limousine to a secure car park only 20m away. Ollie reversed the limo downhill the whole distance, in neutral, directly into a parking bay. Little did they know that we would milk their kindness like a Mongolian Mare-milker desperate for a glass of its sweet, sweet milks.
The second part of our two part plan to settle in Almaty was to find a cheaper hostel. We sniffed around the street, seeking the distinctive reek of customer dissatisfaction. We found two travellers who could not have been more disappointed with their hostel. They had been charged twice at twice the quoted price, propositioned by prostitutes, bothered by cockroaches and drug dealers, bitten by semi-wild animals, hung, drawn, quartered and finally beheaded, their eyes removed and replaced with glass by an amateur taxidermist and their formaldehyde-soaked, rigid corpses placed in compromising positions in the window of a backstreet erotic trivia dealer. We arrived at the hostel to find a kitten playing with a puppy in the lobby, were served free tea and coffee and given an 8 person dorm of our own. Ollie got a cut price blow job and Jack had his legs preserved for posterity (we were glad we had brought what was left of them all the way from Turkey). I guess some people are just unlucky. The Hostel bore the mysterious moniker “Hostel 74/76”.
We obtained dinner round the corner at “Dastarkhan”, another of Almaty’s Bistros – it would be a haunt of ours for some time due to its low prices and convenient location. Until, of course, Jack would ruin it for everyone. More on that later.
Relatively tired but keen to do something, we searched for somewhere to play pool. When we finally made staff at Dastarkhan understand what we were talking about, we were directed 5km away into Almaty’s underbelly. The building, when we found it, also housed a bowling alley; through the window we could see that it was under plastic wrap for redecoration. Walking up winding stairs away from those obscured pine lanes felt like walking into a secret mafia hideout. Debouching into a sparingly lit, open room full of plush felt tables did nothing to quash that impression. Neither did the clientele: men wearing slicked back hair and tall, too-skinny women on their gold-strung arms. So there we were, in the midst of a Kazakh gangster money-laundering operation, supping cold beers and playing pool. For the record, Ollie won the tournament before we called it a night.