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.)
Staff: “*FRUSTRATED KAZAKH WORDS*”
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.
(PIC OLLIE LYING DOWN IN ROAD)
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.