Kazakhstan Part 8 – Then onto Russia


At some point the next day, we arrived in Pavlodar. It was to be a day of unexpected, inescapable urges to poo, car repairs and walking around in intense heat attempting to get on to trams.
The suspension was hanging so low that any flaw in the road caused the entire mechanism around the wheel to ram into the chassis. After attempting to find a replacement spring proved truly hopeless, Ollie and Steve resolved to replace the driver’s side suspension with the spring that they had extracted from the Rover when we had broken down in Turkmenistan, when our suspension collapsed, breaking our drive shaft. This spring was not a fantastic replacement. In addition, it is really quite complex to replace, involving, among other difficult operations, the transplantation of the home-made spacer, a blood transfusion and an extended period of dialysis.
Dom and Jack, meanwhile, made tea. And then when their usefulness was expended like the tired teabags that we were by this point re-using, they went to the shop to look for Bluetooth speakers. The sound quality of the two front speakers had been steadily deteriorating to the point where it was comparable to the sound your grandma might make, wedged deep inside your sock drawer. Except, it was probably slightly less endearing than your grandma (unless your grandma swears anywhere near as much as Biggy Smalls: we were going through a hip hop phase).
Ollie and Steve, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to do the repairs nowhere in particular near the Bluetooth-mobile-phone-speaker-shop. It was in this way that Jack and Dom begun trying to get onto trams. On their first attempt, they were told they needed to walk the other way. On their second attempt, Dom had an unexpected, inescapable urge to poo and so they hobbled to a hardware store across the road just as their tram was arriving. After painfully browsing faucets and fireplaces, Dom found a toilet. Unfortunately, it was not plumbed in to anything. After a hurried exit, Jack and Dom walked back to the car, empty-handed, one hour having been wasted on guerrilla diarrhoea and mounting trams headed in the wrong direction.
Gauging that they had more time by the fact that the car was still missing its driver side suspension, Dom and Jack made a third attempt. Steve was deep under the car, pouring toxic coolant directly onto his own face. Ollie was locked in battle with a greasy spring, feet pushing one end, arms pulling the other, amused Kazakh men staring on confusedly.
Waiting on the “platform”, an invisible, slight broadening of the dirt tracks that run alongside the tram line, Jack was hit by an unexpected, inescapable urge to poo. Bent at the hip, knees pointing in opposite directions, arms wrapped around his midriff, he soldiered on until finally were able to clamber onto a tram. It was still heading in the wrong direction. Frustrated and confused, hot and upset, we decided to walk.
As we walked, we improvised a song called “English Man in Kazakhstan” documenting the traumas of being a man of our nationality in this country of backwards trams.
English man in Kazakhstan,
Cannot catch Kazakh tram,

So he talks to Kazakh man,
Whose Kazakh name is ‘Kazakh Stan’,
“Kazakh Stan, how to catch a Kazakh tram?”
“You must talk to Kazakh Zack.
He will supply you what you lack”
English Man in Kazakhstan,
Cannot catch Kazakh tram,
So he talk to Kazakh Zack,
Who simply turns his Kazakh back
“The Kazakh tram cannot be caught
And Kazakh trust cannot be bought”
Said Kazakh Stan from Kazakhstan’s Kazakh man friend,
Kazakh Zack
English Man in Kazakhstan,
Cannot catch Kazakh tram…
….and so on. Luckily, there were not many people to overhear us, because the route we chose, and pursued for so long that we were irrevocably committed to it, took us across a bridge that was deep in the stages of being reconstructed. These comprehensive renovations probably explain the backwardness of the trams, which with sensible unanimity headed in the opposite direction. The fifty foot high concrete structure was propped up with poorly welded metal struts at one end and a sweating, terrified looking fat man at the other.
Having avoided death by exposed electrical wire, giant-hole-in-the-ground and carelessly-wielded-high-power-equipment, Jack and Dom reached a row of shops selling household electronics equipment, conveniently located at the other side of the monumental death trap. They felt a mixture between euphoria and intense abdominal cramps as they walked into the white, brightly lit interior of the first shop and gazed in wonder at an entire wall of speakers. None of which were Bluetooth, USB powered or rechargeable. Three shops later and still speakerless, they began searching for a tram, which, with the assistance of a pitying ticket-person they caught.
Soon we were on the road again. With delays having stymied our progress we made a decision that would change the entire nature of the journey. We would drive for 24 hours a day until we reached Mongolia. This was our escape from Kazakhstan; after having been here for two weeks, in three cities, in desert, mountain, lakeside and steppe. After breaking down and regaining our sanity and our momentum, we were on the final stretch to Mongolia, land of horses and horse meat and horse milk.
As we got closer to the Russian border the road began to deteriorate visibly, reaching the consistency of pork crackling, of thick, gnarled bark, of ossified cabbage. It was sort of unbelievable how much they had let the road go for the last 100m of Kazakhstan. There were moments, with the recoil from potholes racking the car, almost reminiscent of our escape from Turkmenistan.
The Kazakh border guard looking over our car spoke perfect English. He just wanted chat about our trip. The Russian border guards were more numerous, had dogs and seemed unwilling to write on our roof. They required that we disinfect our car. All buildings seemed temporary and everything was either on wheels or was very obviously a moveable structure: traffic cones, portakabins, guards on roller blades, dogs on skateboards, birds with wings. In the long grass at the other side of the crossing, we noticed a rusting gate: as if the entire border had been steadily encroaching into Kazakh territory. Those crafty Russians. They had even evidently made the traffic cones themselves.
There was one particularly hairy moment where guards, looking at our route map, pointed out that Crimea (still possessed by Ukraine when the map was printed) was now Russian. We had worried that this happened and awkwardly cajoled the conversation forward. After a light beating, we offered them eggs.
At the point at which we had to pay for things, such as tax and insurance, we realised that we had no currency. Relishing the opportunity to rescue a group of foolish young Englishmen, a group of Russians headed towards Novosibirsk stepped in and paid for everything for us. It just proves that even international hostility at the level of continent-scale diplomatic warfare can be overlooked if you drive a Rover and have a cheeky grin as loveable as Jack’s.
There was a reason for Jack’s sweet-cheeked serenity at that particular moment. For approximately 8 days he had been attempting to complete Tetris on its hardest setting. Steve had brought along the game seemingly in order to demonstrate the superiority of his thumb-based dexterity. The trip so far had been punctuated by exclamations such as “I just completed Tetris three times in a row” and “I don’t think any of you will complete Tetris during this trip” and “SLOT RIGHT IN THERE. OH YEH. OHH YEHHH.” Whilst Dom and Steve were wrangling insurance and stubbornly trying to pay in Euros some thousands of miles from Europe, Jack successfully did it. He put those pixelated little blocks on top of one another, over and over, filling in the gaps and making complete lines. He did that until he had made 25 lines. It was a positive omen, a high point of the trip.
And then we continued driving.
1/09 – 3/9

The days blurred together; scratchy-eyed gravel stints breaking into lakes that hit the edges of the view like seas, and mountains swathed in trees but cut through by ski runs and rivers, interrupted by toy towns with rainbow-coloured, corrugated iron roofs that cluster around petrol stations run by families whose children bike around, as though there were no schools out that far into Siberia. Then there were gridded cities with grand motorways rammed through racks and racks of identical apartment buildings that crowded like ghettos that someone had pumped with concrete and jacked up to thirty stories, the scarred road separated from their incredulous windows by red and gold, pretentiously ornate fences.
The cardinal rule in Russia is that the next thing is always just over three hours away. And that those three hours are always tripled by road-works; climbing mountain passes on mountains of dirt and stones that they lay down to replace the tarmac. Lorries floodlight the crawling duel carriageways, deep pools of too-bright light in amidst total black, queuing indefinitely and being overtaken and overtaking and pulling over unexpectedly, and pulled over in the middle of nowhere in villages of vehicles.
We ate eggs in the mornings and pasta with tomato sauce in the evenings. Sometimes we ate sandwiches, in laybys, on the wall outside of supermarkets, with one hand whilst driving. We had a daily row over who would do the night shift, about a “new system” for the length of each shift, about the fact that, for a potentially life-altering period of approximately three seconds, we were all asleep simultaneously. The car rolled along, enjoying a sudden bout of free well and discerningly decided to use this freedom to pull us over onto the hard should and wait patiently for Jack to regain consciousness. All of our biological signs were reading “less than ideal”; hungry with heavy bowels, thirsty and sleep-deprived. We dosed in the back of the car, swaddled in a waist-deep pond of sleeping bags and blankets and jumpers and towels, lulled to sleep by the rattling syncopation of the car’s failed suspension.
We were pulled over twice on the way to Russia. Once early in the morning, by a policeman who simply wanted to laugh at our car from close up. Another time for overtaking a lorry at a junction. The second time, Dom was made to sit in a police car with an unemphatic, grey-faced man who asked repeatedly for payment, growing increasingly bewildered by Dom’s unerringly smiling, gormless face. Hysterical from having been in a car for 48 hours, Dom asked questions completely unrelated to the matter at hand, murdering half-learned Russian small-talk-phrases to his host’s dismay. “I see you in my dreams” was his closer: we were soon on our way, our pockets no lighter.
The car was beginning to appear tired. We suffered a terrifying moment at 3am with Jack behind the wheel, with the car suddenly jerking to the right and dropping a couple of inches in height. Haplessly bleary, Dom hopped out of the car to investigate. “I doooonnnn’t knowwww. Something is Wronggggg. Olllliiiiiiie. Oh, wait, yeh, it’s just a flat tyre.” The tyres were both worn disproportionately on the inside: they were leaning inwards due to the damage to the suspension, and we guessed that we would need to change them every couple of days from this point onwards. We put in place serious measures to stem the damage. We agreed to stop driving at over 85mph, bought new tyres and had the camber adjusted at a garage the next day.
As if to exacerbate the pain of being so far behind other Ralliers and of not doing the Western route, we saw multiple Mongol Rally cars coming the other way, returning from Mongolia and reminding us that we too would be heading back this way. We found solace in one description of Western Mongolia by a returning Rallier as “just really frustratingly bumpy for just a really long time”. He happened to be a friend of Laurence’s (of the Ice Cream Truck) brother and to live in Devon.
And then something unexpected happened. We arrived at the Mongolian border.

Kazakhstan Part 7 – The Almaty Chronicles


DAY 8 in Almaty. Dedicated to Alyona, without whom our escape from Kazakhstan would have been impossible.

We had planned to wake at 8am and be ready to get shafted. Instead, we ‘leapt into action’ at 10am, waking to discover that the rod had come (prematurely). “YES YES YES”, we ejaculated ecstatically, bouncing up and down rhythmically, “YEEEEEEEESSSSSSS!” We ran to the Markov Inn. Steve filmed as Ollie ran in and clutched his package with elation. After we had been dancing in a circle around the bewildered receptionist for some time, Steve announced that he had failed to click Record. Angry, and tired from the dancing, we replaced the package behind the desk and left the building. Then we ran in for a second time. “Have you got something for us?” The receptionist frowned as if reliving an uncomfortable memory. “Some kind of package?” nudged Ollie. Silence. “There it is!” yelled Ollie, grabbing the package from behind the desk and beginning the dance for a second time. Except this time, we got it on camera.

We went straight to Alyona’s office. Realising quickly that we had no idea what we were doing, she drove us to a garage that she was familiar with and negotiated on our behalf. When it became clear that we were highly reluctant to pay the £20 to have the car professionally towed to the garage, with a sigh, Alyona agreed to drive back to where the car was parked and tow us, though she emphasised that she had never done anything like this, even for friends. Then, she pulled the limousine along one of Almaty’s busiest roads in her 4×4. She enlisted a friend to project her entire upper body out of the rear window to monitor the tension in the tow line. There was much shouting of “Dvye! Dvye! Dvye!” which means “yes”, “no”, “go” and “watch out for that lorry” depending on intonation. And then we arrived at the garage where the limo was to be repaired for the final time on the trip.

Unlike in Uzbekistan, the Kazakh mechanics took lunch breaks. Ollie took the opportunity to remove the sump guard and drain the oil, in anticipation of an oil change. After much negotiation, much of which took place in a squatting position, the staff agreed to go against garage policy and buy cheaper oil for us at the market. Next, the drive shaft was replaced with relative ease. It was at this time that we discovered that it was still in a single piece. The shaft had slipped out of the CB joint, probably because the repair in Uzbekistan had slightly shortened the part.

The next revelation was that the bolt securing the alternator had sheared inside the hole. The repair was simple in theory: drill the broken bolt out of the hole. Insert new bolt. But for some reason, the garage did not have the required drill bit, which was a standard size piece just a little longer than the ones they had. There followed two useless hours of attempted broken bolt removal before Ollie hit upon the idea of lengthening the drill bit with a small piece of bar. Ollie ground the new piece of excess weldment. Sparks flew. No safety equipment was worn. Everyone was happy.

With the sky darkening, we tested out the new shaft, revving the limo in tight circuits of the car park. A quick knock with a hammer fixed one remaining rattle and we were done. The feeling driving along that highway, with the sun dropping in the sky, was incredible. “FUCK YOU ALMATY, WE’RE FREE”. We were driving the limo again, we weren’t just anonymous Brits in a hostel room; we were Mongol Ralliers headed for Ulaan Baator. The car was at full power again, no longer limited to an insulting 55mph. All 6 cylinders roaring the way that nature intended, petrol diminishing at a climate-annihilating, apocalypse-inducing rate, horn blaring at unsuspecting drivers. Mobile and eager to move.

We retired to the Markov Inn and watched the final episode of The Wire. It was all coming together and tomorrow, we would leave Almaty.


DAY 9 in Almaty

Escape from Almaty. Steve took the helm and we headed outwards, entangled in Almaty’s ring roads and slowed down by Steve’s Zoolander-like aversion from turning left across traffic. After several missed turns, a few accidental stretches of dirt roads and around 3 hours of driving, we had got out. It was a hugely momentous moment. The last couple of weeks had been shot through with uncertainty, with discussions about whether we needed to head straight back from Almaty towards home to avoid running close to our Russian visa deadlines, with serious concerns about the car. Now, we were not only moving, we were going faster than the car had been able to travel since before Turkmenistan, owing both to the repair and to the quality of the roads.

It was not long before we had run up against a huge lake, and were skirting its edge. On its coast was a small, fake castle which sold cutlets of dried fish. After Jack had ordered a meal, we changed our mind and left. Jack followed reluctantly, head hanging with betrayed anticipation.

Jutting onto the lake was a jetty. The wooden structure was supported by some of the most suspicious looking welding we have ever encountered. Whilst we stood there, the entire artifice collapsed, dooming us to watery graves. As Ollie fell through the air towards certain death, his final words rang out; “bury us in the Rover”. Months passed before anyone found our bodies, contorted and bloated beyond recognition, nibbled by fish and infested with snails, knotted with weed and grey with sandy soil. It was a beautiful place to die, but a terrible way to go.

We drove a few miles down the road and found a much cleaner looking, non-castle diner to eat at. A typical attempt to order food from a menu (rather than by pointing at random to foods displayed, as in an Almaty Bistro,) goes as follows:

Us: “Hi… Ah. Yes, what would you recommend?”

Staff: “…” (Shrugging)

Us: “Vuh mozhitye recommendityu?” (Means something like: “Can you fgh$%^&BKkh” because ‘recommendityu’ is not a word in Russian or Kazakh.)


Us: “What. Should. We. Eat. EH?”

And so on. On this occasion, we simply pointed to things that other people were eating and were rewarded (disproportionately) with a filling meal of bulgur wheat and meat. On our way out, we bought sweeties.

That was the last event of note until our run in with the camel and the fighter plane at the wedding.

So there we were, parked under a fighter plane, looking at a camel attending a wedding. In retrospect, the camel probably had very little to do with the wedding. We had initially pulled over because the wedding party was being transported in a stretch Lincoln Navigator. We pulled up alongside the rival limousine. It was almost twice as long as ours, it was not at all dusty and it did not have the words “Limo can’t” (adapted from something rude) keyed into its paint. In our favour, the driver was wearing a two piece nylon Adidas tracksuit. In their favour, the tracksuit was probably cleaner than anything in the car.

All the men were drunk. They crowded around the limo and we got talking, taking pictures. When they found out that Jack was Scottish, they made him put on his kilt, forcibly disrobing him and pulling the kilt onto him. More pictures were taken, the happy couple wrote on our roof, we wrote on their car. Then we put the kilt on the bride and did the Okey Kokey with her in the middle. The bride got a bit annoyed and then we all drove away. A microcosm of modernity.

It was around that point that we all, simultaneously, developed an irresistible, grumbling craving for Heinz Baked Beans. So. We drove to a small supermarket and sent out Ollie and Jack to seek some out. We were quietly confident that this Kazakh city, located in precisely the middle of nowhere, would stock our idiosyncratic, British, bean-based snack. It did get us thinking about the history of baked beans. It just seems strange to puree tomatoes and then bake beans in them. Baked Beans is not that similar to any particular dish or meal that you might find in the British culinary palette. And it’s one of those things that really only goes with toast. You have to picture the Board of Directors of Heinz, sitting around their boardroom table in serious discussion about these cans of sugary pulses. “Yes, we are aiming at the savoury toast-eating market”, a suited, executive would be proclaiming, pie chart projected in black and white behind him. Moustachioed executives with round glasses must have nodded sternly in response “Yes, yes that does make a lot of sense!” If any of us tried to pull that shit today we’d be laughed out of the app store. It just goes to show that trips like this: trips of a lifetime; can really bring you to reflect on those bean-based things you take for granted.

Luckily, Jack and Ollie (abbreviates to J’Ollie) met a Kazakh gangster at just the right time. He had overheard their garbled request in the supermarket and waited for them outside. Grabbing Ollie by the arm he pulled our two team members aside and confided that he knew where to get the beans. “I’m Kazakh gangster” he confided reassuringly. They all stood nodding at one another, smiling slyly in silence for a few seconds before he put J’Ollie in his car and drove away. Once inside, the Kazakh gangster softened their caution by providing beers. To show that the beer was OK, he downed one at a set of traffic lights. Passing the police, he twisted around in his seat to smile at J’Ollie; one of those wide smiles that shows the gold teeth you have at the back of your mouth. As he turned back to the road, he completed the overtake.

They arrived at an almost identical supermarket. Inside, the gangster walked directly to the counter and leaned on it with both elbows. He did one of those knowing upwards nods and winked at the girl behind the counter, gesturing towards J’Ollie, also with his head. The girl, a smile playing teasingly on her lips, checked J’Ollie out, her tongue poking through heavily glossed lips, and beckoned for them to follow her into a back room. Some time later, they emerged with a can of baked beans. The gangster then took a severed index feature wrapped in a sandwich bag, secured with a single elastic band, out of his pocket and threw it to the till assistant, who grinned understandingly.

When we were all reunited at the limo, Ollie was given a phone with an English-speaking voice at the other end. There was a brief period of time, as we stood around drinking beers with our new gangster friend, during which the plan was to go back to his house and drink more beers with him. Instead, we ended up saying our goodbyes and heading out, opting to gain some ground that evening.

With the sun beginning to be lame, Ollie and Jack took us to a sheltered spot along a dirt track at the base of a hill. Falling back into the old ritual, we split into two teams, one pair cooking and one pair setting up tents. It had been a long day and we lay around, eating baked beans and watching the Milky Way emerge. At first it looks like a vapour trail, just insubstantial wisps, but as the sky bleeds light onto the horizon, the Milky Way becomes the rest of the universe, revealed as if the blue of the day was just a dust sheet. We climbed the neighbouring hill, and as we stood at the top looking over an empty expanse that captured the situation in central Kazakhstan so well, we all heard Jack say “how will we ever get out of this mess?”

Wrapped in blankets against cold, we lay on the tarpaulin and ate dessert: canned peaches on biscuits and sour jam, also on biscuits.

By 11am the next day Dom was standing alone inside a police station, staring desperately at the dusty flagstones and shaking his head. “How will I ever get out of this mess?” With one day left to register his visa, he had just learnt that today was the first day of a three day national holiday called “Kazakhstan Day”.
“But, shouldn’t it be Kazakhstan Days? Because…” fright jumping into his eyes, Ollie silenced Dom with a curt shake of his head. The duty policeman glanced at the awkward pair, but returned swiftly to his work. “It turns out Kazakhstan Day started when the ‘day’ was first discovered by a National Kazakh Research facility back in 1993 (just two years after Kazakhstan itself was invented). Originally, Kazakh scientists posited that the ‘day’ was 72 hours long, but this was later, after a prolonged period of laboratory testing, revised to 24 hours in 2011. It turned out that the ‘hour’ was 180 minutes long all along” whispered Ollie urgently.
This in effect meant either waiting in the office for six hours (that’s only two Kazakh hours) for someone (inevitably angry, probably half cut and in their PJs) to come in from their holiday (traditionally involves angrily drinking in your PJs) or attempting to hurriedly travel to the border (without crashing, breaking down, falling foul of the law, dying spontaneously of a stroke, getting distracted for a period of longer than 24 hours, getting lost and ending up further away from Russia than when we started that morning, having the car stolen and so on and so forth).
Pausing wistfully, (it just really seemed like the right time for wist) we reflected (the room was full of mirrored surfaces) that “adventure” on the Mongol Rally really simply stands for “opaque bureaucratic process and inadequate road surfaces”. With this revelation fresh in our hearts, we did the compassionate thing and drove on, risking Dom being deported, arrested, fined, water-boarded and so on and so forth.
After packing the car with as much spaghetti and noodles as it would take, (noodles bulging out of every car-orifice, stuffed into the seats, inside the dashboard, up our trouser legs) we drove.
With Dom’s deportation and extended torture at stake, we were very careful with the car. Ollie got the limousine up to125mph on a flat motorway, its top speed on public roads. Dom slept fitfully in the back.
Our suspension was sagging like an overstretched ear lobe. The roads were fickle; susceptible to sudden changes of surface quality. Sometimes they were more wrinkled than your grandma when you’ve left her in the pool too long, forgotten to iron her, screwed her up and put her at the bottom of your drawer (whilst she was still damp) and sometimes they were like something really, really smooth.
It looked, in places, like a broadsheet newspaper that a person who was new to broadsheets, and with a particularly unimpressive arm-span, had tried to fold on the tube at rush hour. Or as if they had built it badly a long time ago and then allowed it to be warped by severe temperature changes. Either way, it was rutted.
As we had come to expect by now, as it got later in the day, the sun began to lose altitude. Steve spotted a river on the map and we found a sheltered place to camp alongside it, tents set up in deep grass. A Lada howled somewhere nearby and trains moaned threateningly. The tribulations of an English Man in Kazakhstan. This was the last time that we would camp, or sleep simultaneously, until we reached Mongolia.

Continues in Kazakhstan part 8

Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan Part 6 – The Almaty Chronicles


DAY 6 in Almaty. DAY 1 in Kyrgyzstan.

After an oily breakfast at an oily bistro, at which we were quickly becoming regulars (and at £1 per meal who would hold it against us? Our parents? Our bowels?), and a 2km reccy back to the car, Dom was set for his adventure/exile to Kyrgyzstan.

He would hitchhike the 500km to Bishkek and back over a 24 hour period. Dom, a veteran adventurer, had an illustrious and much storied background to grant him confidence. To begin with, he had racked up a full 2 miles hitching in Devon’s fairly tame moorland on a moderately sunny Sunday morning. Hitching twenty times further through Kazakhstan’s largely uninhabited mountainous borderland was probably going to be different. Cornering two hitchhikers who were staying at the hostel before he set out, he enlightened himself as to the proper decorum with a couple of searching questions (“so… do you actually just stick your arm out, then?” and “is it better to be walking or standing still?”)

Perhaps this plan was a figment of being recklessly bored of dorm-room incarceration in Almaty, but it did seem better than the alternative options, which included getting a train 2,000km to Novosibirsk, Russia or simply waiting it out and hoping the drive shaft came in time for a speedy repair and an uneventful escape from Kazakhstan. And with our luck with delivery companies, spending 24 hours being driven through wilderness by strangers seemed preferable.

So in the midday sun, Dom caught a taxi to a bus stop, a bus to a bus station and walked until he was clear of Almaty.


The problem with getting a lift outside large cities in Kazakhstan is the fact that everyone is running a taxi service, because it is legal for anyone to collect strangers in their car from the side of the road and to charge them for the service. Before he managed to get a lift, more than 10 taxis stopped by: often seeing another car drive away inspired them to take their chances and pull over, leading to chains of disappointed commuters: taking a scruffy English kid to Bishkek for free was no one’s idea of fun.

Eventually, a taxi with a single spare seat picked him up. Wedged in the front seat with his unnecessarily bulky rucksack on his lap, Dom double-checked that the man did not want money. He simply appeared to be curious. And to be an evangelical Muslim intent on conversion. For it was only the words that referred to Islam that Dom was able to recognise. Twisting awkwardly in his seat, he took in the three female passengers in the back, who smiled laughingly at him. When Dom returned his gaze to the road he noticed that they were navigating a crowded car park at some speed, evidently in an attempt to short circuit the unreasonably hectic traffic on the road alongside them. Horn held firmly down, pedestrians fleeing in indignant terror, the driver continued to name-drop Allah and chat at Dom cheerfully, occasionally looking back at the road. Eventually, once they were past the thick of it, he let Dom out with a promise that it would be easier to catch a lift from the new spot. Wistfully, Dom realised he had simply succeeded in hitching to a place that was too far to walk back to Almaty from, and barely closer to his destination.

The tactic that succeeded in securing his next lift was as follows. Stand still with your bag on the floor. Attempt to make eye contact with the driver and when you succeed, gesture very slightly with your outheld arm. At the very least, the drivers will shake their heads in apology.

The outskirts of Almaty look a lot more like what I pictured of Kazakhstan prior to the trip and contrast severely with the large swathes of the city occupied by trendy restaurants and entire districts of 5 star hotels. “Dusty” is a word we use a lot to describe Central Asia, but this is unavoidable. The substance suspended in the air and lying thick on the ground is too fine and filthy to be sand, sticks to everything, powders your throat and burns your eyes. In the dust, people of every variety mill chaotically, often walking into the middle of the road to hail taxis or standing in large, impassable and highly vocal groups. Shacks and stands and people pushing trolleys loaded with products make up the commercial architecture, whilst the background ambience is largely determined by the tenor of the orchestral chorus of car horns, cutting through sulphur-yellow, low octane petrol fog.

The person who eventually got Dom to the border was not, by anyone’s account, pretty. His teeth gleamed gold from the blackish depths of the cabin of his truck. His only hobby, as far as Dom could glean through two hours of dictionary-mediated ‘conversation’, was alcohol. When asking after the contents of the truck the driver only shook his head in grim wordlessness.


Perhaps out of some romantic notion of frugality, Dom had purchased a couple of rounds of bread and not much else to keep him nourished while travelling, and the odd-couple shared this on the journey. They talked about the driver’s children, his wife and his destination and regularly fell into tense silence in between bouts of stuttering incomprehension, which was broken only when Dom pulled out his harmonica and broke the instrument itself.

The mountains that divide Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan run down to the road on your left, and as you drive away from Almaty they fade away, counting down the miles to the pass. On your other side there is endless grass, carpeting endless country. Eventually they arrived in Korday, the border town. After a 2km walk to the actual crossing (which was in the process of closing) Dom was through, with no assurance that he’d be able to get back. On the other side, after determinedly walking for 20 minutes, Dom caved and hitched the final 20km in a lavish 4×4. The driver helped him find somewhere to stay and asked for 200 Som (£2) for his trouble.

Bishkek felt less wealthy than either Shymkent or Almaty. Everything other than the roads was on a smaller scale. In the dark, Dom went out foraging. Clearly a foreigner in a part of town that seemed unused to foreigners, he walked into a small family-run café. He had to actually walk through someone’s living room to get to the kitchen, saying hello to a teenager in school uniform studying as he passed through. As in many places, it was the teenagers who ended up translating the menu into English whilst the mother stared on in amused confusion. Little did Dom know how this functional small talk would damage his mental health.

It began during the meal, with just one girl sitting opposite, talking about school. But whilst the other customers at the restaurant filtered out, she was joined by a sister and a cousin, then a second cousin and an aunt. With mounting terror, he mopped up the last of the ketchup covered dumplings as he was gradually surrounded by three generations of Kyrgyz women, none of whom had ever left the country. To his despair, they bombarded him relentlessly with nonsensical English non sequiturs such as “Red is my favourite colour”. Feeling intensely nervous about the way things were going, he feigned ‘nodding contemplatively’ in response to being told “London is the capital of Grrrreat Brrrrritain” for the second time, all the while priming himself for a crafty escape. In a lull in the barrage he put one hand in the air and paused for effect, “well, I’ve always thought…” he started, before bursting precipitously through their formation to beat a flustered exit, laughing hysterically into the night. A close shave (but unfortunately not the kind his face so desperately needed).

DAY 7 in Almaty,
A phone call that morning to DHL brought back distressing news. We had known that the drive shaft had been in customs for two days now, but it became apparent that this was only because they needed more information from us. We set to work immediately. We needed a scan of Jack’s girlfriend’s mum’s passport. DHL also requested a receipt for when she had purchased the passport, a thumbprint, a urine sample and a lock of her armpit hair. Not having any of the above, Ollie was ready with chewing gum, a pen knife and cardboard to craft something together. Without a printer, everything had to be made by hand. It took most of the morning, but in a feat of remarkable bureaucracy, we created a passable passport fake that day using more or less just our minds and a couple of sharpies. Jack cut off some of his leg hair, and we convinced a French Vietnamese woman we encountered in the street to pee for us. Sweat popping out on his brow, Jack forged Jeanne’s mum’s signature and the deed was done.

With all of this achieved, the drive shaft’s ETA was “within 2-3 days”. This, very evidently, was political correctness gone mad. It was the EU fucking up everything as usual. It was immigrants taking our jobs. In the first place we were given an estimate of 1-3 working days. If it takes an item 2 or more days just to get out of customs it was unclear how with any conscience they could give us that initial estimate to go all the way from England to Kazakhstan. Furious, Jack set about using his connections to pose a legitimate threat of nuclear response should DHL fail to comply with our demands. When DHL grasped the threat of nuclear holocaust, they agreed to “see what they could do”.

When this was all over, we were slightly bored. “I just NEED some CULTURE!” screamed Steve, his voice breaking with emotion, his fingers curled and the ligaments on his neck standing out, humming with tension. Hemmed in by bunk beds on all sides, the team were in a desperate crisis.

“OK” said Jack, flustered, “Jeez.” The team was breaking down without Dom. Without him there to be over-reactive and up-tight about everything, the burden was spread unevenly between the others.

And so we set out for the “Museum of Modern Suffering”, which for obvious reasons shares a building with the Museums for the Kazakh State, for its Art and for its Musical Instruments. Yet when we arrived at the place marked on the map, instead of finding a museum of modern suffering, we found a secondary school, the bureau of criminal investigations and a marriage councillor.

Haranguing a nearby travel agent got us a different address. The address was different because it was for a different museum; “Central Museum”. This was set in a stunning, ornate white building with cerulean blue domes and tall thin windows. Inside, they clearly understood that some of their visitors would be English, as they had provided information in English to let these people know what they could, and could not, touch. However, other than this, all of the exhibits were labelled in Kazakh and Russian, leaving us to work out Kazakhstan’s glorious history for ourselves from pictures.

The museum deserves particular mention because the emphasis they place on different topics seems to mirror wider feeling in the country. An entire floor is dedicated to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the incumbent president. The 74 year old dictator is the father of Kazakhstan, having been in charge since it was a Soviet state (25 years). Nazarbayev, jointly with Russia’s Putin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, was awarded the “Man of the year Award” in 2012. He is “an Ultimate Oligarch”, is a member of the Order of the Golden Eagle, the order of the Red Banner of Labour, and was awarded the Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George by the UK.

Nazarbayev has declared a ‘Holy War’ against corruption. He is the author of the prescient “Kazakhstan 2050” initiative which predicts Kazakhstan’s future (for example, that country’s aubergines will be twice as big, that average walking speed will be ‘quite quick’, that Russia and Kazakhstan’s socio-political relationship will be 4 degrees Celsius warmer) and he likes to ski, play with baby animals and to play curling in his spare time.

The other major exhibit of note is the interactive feature on oil and gas. The feature allows individuals to try “fracking” themselves, controlling a remote, active seam of fuel via webcam with a joystick. It includes an 18 minute “choose the next step” interactive video on a 3mx3m touch screen, and attendees are given a small pouch of oil to take away with them as a sample.

Later that day, Dom returned.

DAY 2 in Kyrgyzstan

Meanwhile, at a café somewhere in Bishkek, disappointedly slurping instant coffee (rather than the artisanal fairtrade organic Ethiopian blend he had hoped for) Dom became aware that his cry for help had been answered through the Mongol Rally Facebook group. Just Add Water, who had accompanied us through our damaging Turkmen saga, came to the rescue once more: they set up a meet that morning.

Notwithstanding, flaunting their arrangements, Dom caught them stopped at a set of traffic lights. Running up to the car with his arms waving, his face distorted in ecstasy, mouth wide open and emitting a glottal, undulating wail – “I’m not where I suppose to be” he said as he arrived at the window, in place of “hello”. They drove on. Wheezing, he caught them further on, “what gives?” he asked. “We thought you were a homeless man”. Caressing his matted beard and arranging his filthy shirt on his narrow frame, Dom shook his head in perplexity.

Dom rode with Buster of team “Geek and a Freak”, who was driving the legendary Fiat Panda 4×4. The inside of the car was brilliantly modified, with a dash cam suspended in a net of duct tape, oversize speakers and subwoofers, switches to manually operate the engine-cooling fan and the lights. The heater intermittently roasted our feet as we travelled: taking its hot air off the engine, it actually helped to stop the engine overheating.

The pair of cars made it to the border after Just Add Water were pulled over twice by police, firstly for running a set of lights and secondly for speeding. Munching fresh fruit we had obtained by offloading the last of our Kyrgyz Som, we were surrounded by friendly border-loiterers as we queued. Many borders accommodate such a contingent of individuals, who hang around with the intention of “helping” travellers. We met one such gentleman that day who spoke English, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Russian and Korean. Fluently. And his job was to sell hats to tourists. This is incredibly impressive, and we should not look down on anybody who falls foul of the wiles of such a person, even if the hats are obviously over-priced.

Later, travelling with him in a taxi away from the border, back towards Bishkek (just after the car had gone through the crossing) Sophie and Dom were headed to a nearby village to be sold some over-priced hats. We arrived at a village composed of freshly built houses with shiny new corrugated roofs. There, an old woman emerged clutching the package. The hand-off took place and we were on our way again, this time climbing into a Marshrutka to make the return trip. Pressed against a huddle of old ladies in the doorway of the vehicle, we felt a little like intruders.

When we got back to the border, the others had crossed through already. We were to experience the ruck for ourselves. The queue was a heaving mass of wrestling people, bowed over crates as large as large children (they could have contained children for all anyone knew). Reaching the other side, Dom was accompanied by a 6 year old child, who rose from hands and knees from between someone’s legs, pink and moist, with his arms in the air. “YES!” he shouted, slowly rotating in triumph “I WIN!” That was how Dom felt too. It was only then that Dom realised that there was a possibility that, following this exit stamp, he would be stuck in no-man’s-land, unable to return to Kazakhstan. He did not have time to wallow in the melodrama of the situation for too long, as the Kazakh border control was show-stoppingly efficient. No problems; homeward bound.

The journey to Almaty was notable for only two things. The first was Just Add Water being pulled over for a third time (such a liability) and the second was the topiary. Dom had somehow missed the irregular chainsaw hedge sculptures that lined the central reservation for miles and miles.

The two teams did not intend to linger in Almaty, so they stopped at the very north of the city at a Monster Truck garage (apparently the only place qualified to look at the huge springs that suspend the little Skoda Felicia). After a detour to get Vietnamese food (in line with Kazakh tradition, the Vietnamese restaurant sold one Kazakh dish and nothing else, which they half-reheated for us in a microwave), Dom thanked the teams and headed out on his own to get back.

It was rush hour. This meant the number of lanes of traffic doubled, that you could see the seams of the buses straining as more people levered themselves inside, that it was faster to jump from roof to roof than to be inside any of the cars. It was then that Dom resorted to the Metro. None of us had even really realised that Almaty had a metro. The journey cost Dom 80p, took him the entire length of the city, and did so in an empty, air-conditioned, scrupulously clean car. The stations were marble and lit tastefully. Everything was deserted. It was like travelling in a 4 star hotel.

Back in the hostel room, we murmured our hellos to one another and put an episode of ‘The Wire’ on.

Continues in Kazakhstan Part 7