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

Kazakhstan Part 5 – The Almaty Chronicles

DAY 3 in Almaty

Dom had been whining about not having gone paragliding in Georgia for some weeks by this point. Rousing the team at 8am he announced that he had committed us all to a session paragliding. Collected from our hostel with sleep in our eyes and reluctant limbs, we were driven 40km outside Almaty to a big hill. We then proceeded to jump off the hill, strapped to monolingual bearded men, to float around for about 30 minutes each, our only instruction being “RUN RUN RUN” pre-take-off (Health and Safety gone mad!) A whole day spent waiting to look at the ground from slightly higher up (and paying £50 each for the privilege). Ollie got quite close to some Kazakh birds (eagles or similar) and Dom took off backwards. Steve went pretty high and Jack went pretty far. All in all, I think we all agree we would have preferred to stay in the dorm and watch The Wire.



Our guide, however, was very interesting. Working for a paragliding company, he couldn’t tell us anything about it in advance of our flights because he had never done it himself. We learnt from him about Almaty’s split personality between winter as a ski resort and summer as an adventure site for hikers, climbers, bikers and so on. We learnt about the deep pride that the Kazakhs have for their multicultural tolerance and acceptance of all religions. About their preference to marry young. About their unique diplomatic position, in having fostered positive relationships with China, Russia and the West. About the differing attitudes of people from the city and those from the countryside. About how Bob Marley’s music can put children to sleep.

We wanted to walk to the bazaar, but at this point there was, again, about half an hour until the Bazaar closed before we remembered.

Dom had been whining about not seeing much of each place we stayed in, ever since we had driven directly through Hungary without stopping. To shut him up, we looked up some “areas of interest” and walked around them a couple of times. We saw a park and a church thing. The most interesting thing about them were the use of old Ice Tea bottles as sprinklers to revive the balding, anaemic grass. It was nice, but it was not quite driving. Then we went and ate at a “Chinese Restaurant”. This was just a Kazakh restaurant with a sign saying “Chinese Restaurant” outside. It had pictures of approximately 8 different meals outside, only one of which we could order.



We then went for a couple of drinks at an unjustifiably expensive bar before heading back and watching The Wire. Finally.


DAY 4 in Almaty

Unable to motivate ourselves to move, we stayed in bed until it was almost too late to go to the bazaar. But then we did actually go to the bazaar. The bazaar’s meat hall alone is the size of a normal supermarket. Add two warehouse-sized indoor sectors, an outdoor sector quadruple the size of those combined, laid out over three floors, and you have no trouble losing Dominic first and then Jack. Ollie bought a blanket, we tried and failed to buy a chess set for the 15th country in a row and got out-bartered by half a dozen stall-holders whilst trying to buy Kazakhstan t shirts. We did manage to buy a ‘Good’ drink, its logo eerily similar to Google’s.

We could all feel the trip slipping away from us. We were so close to Mongolia. Our visa dates for Russia were starting to slip, Dom was running up against the number of days he could stay in Kazakhstan without a Business visa. Every day spent in Almaty meant accumulating inevitable expense: there was no way, by this point, that we would have either the money or the time to do the ‘Western route’ through Mongolia; the reason most people even bother doing the Mongol Rally. The Western Route is a roadless expanse of nomadic wilderness that is the closest thing (that you can drive to) to the end of civilisation. Imagining the limousine crossing rivers and getting stuck, its wheels falling off in the midst of Yak-inhabited steppe, was the real comedy behind choosing it. We were fairly down about the wrecked suspension and the delays.

So there we were, watching the world Volleyball championships and eating garlic croutons, our litres of beer served to us by Fraus in traditional Bavarian dress, in a German bar in Almaty, Kazakhstan. We stayed like this until we had finished the free garlic croutons and caught a taxi back to Dastarkhan, where we knew the beer was marginally cheaper.


Little did we know the margin by which it was cheaper. When we ordered 4 litres of beer, it was served to us in a ‘tower’ at a steep discount (averaging out at £1 / Litre). We were met there by a pair of American ralliers who had valorously opted to do the Rally in the tiny Daewoo Matiz. We merrily drank our way through several towers. Dom fell asleep. Jack excused himself to the bathroom. Once there, carefully surveying the room, he opted, after a slight pause, to throw up into the sink. After some time at this activity, Jack (with dismay) noted that the discharge was not going down the sink. A bouncer arrived at the door. “Hello!” Said Jack cheerfully, giving the man a nod and a wink. Turning back to the task at hand with utter despair, Jack begun using his hands as surreptitiously as he could, under the supervision of his new friend. He used his finger to poke the larger chunks of part-digested garlic crouton through the narrow gratings in the sink. He was, overall, hideously unsuccessful. We all soon left – never to return.


The walk from Dastarkhan to the Hostel takes approximately 90 seconds. Dom and Steve decided to spice things up, bored as they were, by taking a new route back. They arrived back at the hostel more than an hour later after having got lost walking round the corner. The saga continues.


DAY 5 in Almaty

The situation was thus. Dom, being the least organised of the group in the run up to the trip, had delayed arranging a Kazakh visa for so long that Kazakhstan had repealed the visa requirement for British citizens. He therefore had 15 days visa-free in Kazakhstan whilst Steve, Ollie and Jack had a full 30 days on their visa. This 15 day quota was running thin due to the delays with the drive shaft. With no available information on the new arrangement, Dom peeled himself from bed, hungover, pre-8am, and set out in search of the British Embassy.

Standing in the address that Google Maps had given him, he could not help but feel as though something was not quite right. There was more greenery than he was expecting, and fewer walls. The British Embassy appeared to be a disused lot with some old children’s play equipment rusting in it. Checking his facts online, he was redirected to a nearby hotel. There was a picture of the hotel on the British consular section’s website. That was how Dom knew he was in the right hotel.

“They have moved”. The stony receptionist told him adamantly. “I don’t know where they have gone”. After a couple of phone calls, she had an address for him. On the opposite side of Almaty, Dom found himself in the building that also housed the US embassy; this seemed hopeful.

The foyer was split into two halves. On the US half sat 6 armed guards in full uniform, set up with a pair of PCs and a full walkthrough metal detector. On the British side sat a
Kazakh teenager in a fake Gucci t shirt playing on her iphone. She stared through his passport with glazed eyes and directed him up 8 floors. Dom, following these instructions, arrived in the offices of the British Council, an organisation for the promotion of British culture and the English language outside the UK. They have absolutely no dealings with Visas, but the staff there had a tip as to where he ought to go next. The directions took him back towards the centre of town to a complex that was approximately 3 minutes’ walk the Hostel. After walking two laps of the complex, Dom eventually realised that his destination was a set of closed shutters adorned with precisely no information as regards opening times. Dom would later discover that August bank holiday applies to British staff working in Almaty. But even if the place had been open, it would have only helped him get a visa for Britain, being the British visa service for Kazakh citizens.

In a nearby café, Dom phoned the number listed on the British embassy website. The number rang through to silence three or four times before someone answered. “Hello, this is Happyland Almaty!” Bewildered, Dom borrowed the café’s phone. “Happyland Almaty, how can we help?” came the beatific response.

The British embassy in Almaty is not where it says it is, and there is no information at their previous address as to where in fuck’s name they’ve gone. The phone number on their website sometimes rings through to what we can only assume is a child’s play centre or a well-disguised brothel. When you email them, you receive an automated response. More than a week later, they send you a canned response telling you that they cannot advise you on the visa conditions of other nations.

After lunch, Dom and Steve begun another wild goose chase. We did learn an important lesson. When all seems lost, travel agents will try their very best to help. They will make phone calls, print things, give directions and speak English to you. The one that we tried sent us to the (admittedly wrong) immigration police office.

Talking to the single police officer we found there, wedged under a flight of stairs leading up to an apartment building, we were overheard by a short, rotund civilian. She rattled off a couple of phrases in broken English. Nodding in oblivious agreement, we climbed into her car.

At the other end was the correct police station. Our guide/kidnapper melted silently into the crowd. The office looked a little bit like a British post office, except one wall was lined with a cage full of police (the naughty ones, we guessed) and the queuing system involved significantly more ramming than you might find on your typical UK high street. The police there moved us from one queue to another for a little while, sort of how you might shift food you don’t particularly want around your plate, after sadistically hearing out Dom’s tediously long and certainly incomprehensible Russian explanation of why he was there. Eventually another complete stranger told us Dom could only extend his visa for business purposes. Or perhaps he could leave and come back and everything would be fine.

Back at the hostel, we finally managed to get through to a British consular office in Astana. A confused individual, ostensibly working in the visa office for British nationals in Kazakhstan, explained “I am not sure about the visa rules for British Nationals in Kazakhstan. Either way, it is the policy of the British Embassy in Kazakhstan not to give advice on the visa rules for British nationals in Kazakhstan. Unofficially, you could probably leave and come back”.


Having pursued the topic for an entire day and beginning to understand how gristle, doing circuits around the human digestive system and enduring peristalsis and stomach acid, but ultimately remaining undigested, must feel, Dom ‘decided’ he would just go to Kyrgyzstan the next day anyway. At the worst, the car would by 60kg lighter. At the best, we would be shot of Dom for 24 hours.

Sitting listlessly in our hostel room, hitherto our exclusive sanctuary, we were disappointed to receive news that two more guests would be sharing with us. We opened the windows, put our shoes out of the windows, put our socks out of the windows, binned the remnants of sausage and cheese that littered the floor and generally tried to skim off the stench that was churning around in there. The two men who entered were vaguely familiar. After several minutes of conversation we realised that we had met them before. They were the pair of Israeli hitchhikers we had met at the port in Baku more than three weeks ago. They had caught us up!


There is something amazing about this pair. They fought as though they had endured 30 years of marriage together, carried everything they needed on their backs, did what they wanted to do and went where they wanted to go whenever they felt like it, met incredible people wherever they went and were constantly imbued with restless, cheerful and yet critical energy. They urged everyone around them to explore more, to be more interesting, to get more from their situation. For instance later that day, at a music store looking for strings for their ukulele, they befriended a Kazakh and his girlfriend and stayed the night with them, even though they had paid for the hostel.

Hugely relieved that they had left us to grow mildew in our damp squalor once more, free from the pressure to have adventures and such, we brought the shoes back inside and closed the window, loaded The Wire onto the laptop and sunk into the midst of West Baltimore’s most exquisite traumas.

Continues in Kazakhstan Part 6

Kazakhstan Part 4 – The Almaty Chronicles

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.

2014-08-22 22.40.03

Continues in Kazakhstan Part 5

Kazakhstan Part 3 – The Almaty Chronicles

We arrived in Almaty early in the morning, more or less on schedule with our original plan. Tired, tipsy in places and a little delirious from the traumas of the day, we struggled to find the hostel at which we had planned to stay (and where the drive shaft was due to be delivered the following day). The map showed the address we had as being the location of “Almaty Backpackers Hostel” whilst our sources informed us that the hostel was actually called “The Park Inn Hostel”. Before this could even become a problem, however, we had severe difficulties finding the address in the first place. Asking a group of youths playing basketball lead us in the wrong direction for some time, whilst inviting a stranger we found on the street into the cabin of the tow truck resulted in our prompt arrival at a Holiday Inn.

Finding the right street, we sent Ollie down back alleys to see if the hostel was nestled somewhere inconspicuous. After being chased by wild, rabid dogs the size of (small) horses (dog-sized horses), Ollie found the place. He returned to the limo to discover it had a small, playful kitten inside of it.
(KITTEN PICTURE – Jack’s Phone?)

Because it would have been just too easy otherwise, the hostel had a 6ft, impassable rock and gravel moat surrounding it on all visible sides, preventing us from leaving our car in the Hostel’s fenced car park. The night-duty staff member, after Steve had badgered him on the topic for some time, was adamant that there was no road leading from the other direction by which it could be accessed. Additionally, the road opposite the hostel ran past the local police station. This meant, our Holiday Inn-loving local informed us, that we could not, under any circumstances, park on the street there. Unwilling to leave our gentle limo vulnerable to the night, we hid it as best we could down a back alley 5 minutes from the hostel. The solution was far from ideal but it appeared that we had very few options.

We threw down our bags in our room. All of us were exhausted, triumphant but above all, starving. We were so hungry we even considered cooking something for ourselves. Mercifully deciding against this, we launched ourselves frenetically into the early morning in search for something devoid of any nutritional value, something steaming hot and dripping with viscous orange fluid, with big chunks of meat and cheese. We left Jack engrossed in the rediscovered joys of moderately fast WiFi, promising to return within 20 minutes.

The part of Almaty we had stumbled into appeared to be a business district of some kind, utterly unsuited to pedestrian transit – it was miles of gracefully rising concrete concourses running up to 50 floor hotels and shopping complexes. We walked indefinitely in several directions and found nothing but bus stops and dormant white, monolithic buildings. And none of them contained processed, melted cheese that we could access.

We doubled back and eventually found an open air restaurant/bar with a BBQ. Unable to decipher the menu, Ollie took the initiative and dived head-first into a group of young Kazakh men nearby, pushing a menu in front of one of them and asking for recommendations. And so it begun. We had sat down with a group of friends, several of whom were brothers, and whose ages ranged between 15 and 28. We had just enough money to buy 4 Shaschlick Kebabs (we had one carefully packaged in specially designed heat retentive material for Jack). The Kazakhs bought us a round of beers to welcome us to the country.


(Jack’s luscious Kebab)

Several beers and another kebab later, the toasting began.
“To Kazakhstan!”
“To Nazarbayev!”
“To Almaty!”
“To Steve Jobs!” said the business-savvy business-suited businessman of the group. He had his own business and gave us business cards so that we might take advantage of his business.

“To Kazakhstan!”
“To aubergines, TWICE as big!” said Steve, encouraging our new friends in the face of their unspoken but clearly implicit hopes and fears for the future fecundity of the nascent Kazakh aubergine sector over the next 36 years.
“To Steve Jobs!” we said again. And again.


The night quickly spiralled out of hand. After retelling the fable of how DHL had saved the limo in a way that probably did not make it across the language barrier, we began chanting “DHL! DHL! DHL!” and “Steve Jobs!

Stevie Stevie Jobs! Steve Jobs! Steve Brace! Steven Brace!” Ollie promised to play badminton the next day.

One of the men, Isthkander, punctuated the ‘dialogue’ with what sounded like very convincing Borat impressions.




For some reason, after several people had thrown up (including Steve and Isthkander), we climbed into a car. Not all of us fitted into a car, so Dom caught a taxi with two of the group. Before the car full of Kazakhs could leave, however, Dom decided to climb onto its boot. As is natural when drunkenly driving a fast car and finding a drunken companion on the boot, the driver accelerated. As is natural when the fast car you have grabbed onto accelerates in a seemingly determined way, Dom let go and bounced off the tarmac, mainly unscathed.

We all arrived several minutes later at a nightclub called “Fridays”. It was Thursday by this stage in the proceedings, which seemed to be close enough, as the club was busy. Dom, Steve and Ollie were sporting the classic Mongol Rally look; sandals, shorts, filthy t shirts and a dishevelled, “I fought a snake this morning” look about them. However, the regular clientele of this establishment in general diverged from our particular stylistic strain by washing regularly and wearing nice clothes. We pleaded with the door staff in vain. When they objected to our shorts and sandals, Dom obliged their request and removed these items from his person, to no avail. Ollie subjected them to his best puppy dog impression and ate someone’s wallet. This did nothing to assuage their (evidently baseless) concerns. Just after Dom had almost started a fight with a guy from Beijing (“he was looking at my sandals funny”), we left in search of more alcohol, stopping at several shops before we gave up on the evening.

Heading back, we were pulled over by the police. The police found four inebriated young men without seat belts crammed into seats fit for three. They found a (sober) underage driver who did not match the documentation provided, sitting next to the individual (drunk) who did match the documentation. A policeman climbed into the driver’s seat and twisted around in his seat to say something in Russian to the four bleary backseaters. Dom and Steve dosed, untroubled, throughout. Eventually, the owner of the car told us that “you should get out of the car.”

We did so, only for the car to be driven off by the police officer without any further explanation. This being our first night in Almaty, we were relatively unfamiliar with the city, which is Kazakhstan’s largest. After consulting a map, we discovered that we were 4km from the Hostel. The roads and bus shelters were silent. Isthkander, who had been the fourth person in the back with us, stumbled away down the street in a seemingly purposeful manner. We left him to it and went about getting home. Slowed by our alcoholic stupor and the excessive length of our day by this point, we took over an hour and a half to get back to the hostel.



Dom took a detour to the car to pick up water. This took around 30 minutes of walking in circles through the maze of identical alleyways that concealed the limousine. When he eventually found the car, he also found three of the Kazakhs they had been enjoying the company of earlier that day. They had their car and seemed in good spirits. One of them clutched our severed CB Radio aerial. It was now 6am. “We found thieves, they cut off your aerial. We chased them.” They grinned, heedlessly pleased with themselves in the midst of the longest day of all time. Dom, nodding mutely, weathered the conversation, promised Ollie’s attendance at the badminton game the next day. Then they asked “have you seen our friend, Isthkander?” Alarmed in a noncommittal sort of way, Dom assured them that if he had made it home, he was sure Isthkander was fine too, and slouched back to the room. And so it ended.

Continues in Kazakhstan Part 4

Kazakhstan Part 2

We had gone to bed feeling welcomed and strangely indebted to our hosts, who had told us not to worry about paying and who had offered us breakfast for the morning. Though abundant and evidently good-hearted, their hospitality nevertheless seemed to have a very slight, off-hand air of expectation to it: this was especially tangible in gaps in conversation. In such situations, you are either obliged to be interesting (and so make it worth the hosts’ while) or obsequious (and so make the hosts feel the warm afterglow of a good deed through your itinerant thankings and smilings.) With us being significantly less interesting than our car implied (especially with our personalities filtered through three languages) it was into this latter mode that we switched.

It is with this background that, Dom, waking before the others, set out to search for the breakfast that they had been offered. The search principally involved going to the kitchen and loitering in the vague hope that breakfast would befall him of its own accord. One of the staff called him over, sat him down and began talking at him earnestly in Russian. The talk took the form of a list of items followed by number amounts. Once the talk was complete, the staff member took a magazine, turned it to a random page and wrote down a figure equivalent to around £25. Glancing off to one side, he closed the magazine, returning it to the stack from whence it came and rose shiftily, pausing only to nod at Dom from the doorway before he exited. Dom remained where he sat, troubled.

Later, breakfast happened to him and the others, served by the very hand which had written those confusing numerals on an inappropriately racy advert for a feminine hygiene product. After breakfast, the Russian member of staff followed Dom out of the room. In the meantime, Jack had confirmed with the owner of the complex, Jill, that we would not pay. Dom, also knowing this, diligently answered a further petition for money by directing the staff member to Ollie. Ollie directed him to Steve, who directed him back to Dom. Dom, hoping that this could be maintained without any hurt feelings or backhand cash payments, prodded the unwilling worker in Jack’s direction. Eventually, on Jill’s embarrassed request, we offered the gentleman £6. We are pleased to notify our assiduous reader that he accepted.

We also discovered, before leaving, that our drive shaft had made it to Heathrow!

In high spirits and with a day or two in hand before we needed to be in Almaty, we picked a blue smudge at random from the map and drove towards it.

Hours later, Dom, navigating, confirmed to Steve, who was driving, that they were, without any doubt, in the lake. Steve, looking out of the window at a ragged dog chasing a child in the dust in front of a row of houses, was wont to disagree. We jettisoned Jack to investigate. After watching him walk along (decidedly dry) grass for several minutes and over a ridge (made of land), we drove on. It was clear that we were not in the lake. Jack caught us up a few minutes later.

dry lake in Kazakhstan mongol rally 2014 team blog limo rover 827

We did eventually find the lake. On the way we repaired a slow flat with expanding foam sealant. Not only did the sealant re-inflate the tire, it also repaired the puncture. Then, it made the tire glow in the dark and every two hours, turned out a fresh batch of popcorn and baked potatoes. BUT. For the first 9 miles we had to drive at less 30mph but more than 1mph. This resulted in Steve peeing out of the window of a moving vehicle for the first time, a slow motion police chase (“sorry officer, we can’t stop right now”) and a rolling melon purchase that ended pretty badly.


A snapshot of our diet on a good day:
Breakfast: N/A
Lunch: Pot noodle
Dinner: Pasta with tomato sauce
Dessert: Vodka and Kiwi Juice
STEVE/OLLIE section re: fishermen

At 2am, two Kazakh men arrived to partake in some shouting and fishing. We understand that the repeated yells and ululations were an imitation of the female catfish, the male only being vulnerable to her charms at this time in the morning, on his way home from a heavy session at the drinking hole. In common with 51% of Kazakhs, these men drove a Lada. The Lada comes in every conceivable colour, but most commonly in cream, beige or white.


The classic, boxy shape of the Lada derives from its original intended purpose as a leather suitcase in the 1920s. As we were told by a local once, “Lada is absolutely rubbish (SIC), people drive it because it is traditional or something”. It is so traditional that the Kazakh police even have a fleet of them, making them the slowest, least reliable police force in the world, but, on the plus side, easily the most cube-shaped.

Kazakhstan police car

SNAKE, BREAK, ALMATY LATE. One day, many happenings.
We awoke to find ourselves deep within easily the most chilling episode of our journey (as reported by a major British news outlet).

The morning was bright and the sun warm, its heat a welcome relief from the slight chill in the ominously still air. Sheltering within the limo from the swarms of morning insects that must have heard good things about what Jack had in his trousers (his legs) we noticed the lake move. With mouths full of cereal and tea, heads fuzzy with sleep, we did not immediately react.

It began as a silvery swell, a shell of water approximately 5m wide, rolling soundlessly towards the yellow sand. Following the dome, which was unmarred by any fleck of foam, a flagella-like ripple distorted the stillness. At a glance, it had the effect that passing curved glass over your eye might achieve, simply bending the view without changing its content.

As it reached the shore, the glassy crest burst. Emerging, glistening and obsidian in the pale light, hatched a sepulchral horror of ancient, arcane origin. There were no screeching violins, there was no barbaric roar, just a white sound, like flesh sizzling on burning embers. Venom squirted in great plumes from its fangs, which hung white from distended, grey gums, and looked fit to bite through solid steel rods.

“I will kill you all” gargled the snake through the gushing venom. Its eyes glowed red in a way characteristic of the Caspian Cobra.

A plume of sand erupted 100m away to our right as the Lada made a break for it.
The 2m long black snake moved towards the 6m long black limousine, parked 10m away, at a speed of approximately 1m/s. If the snake moved at a constant speed in a straight line, how much did it weigh as a fraction of the weight of the limousine?


Dom switched the engine on, triggering carefully rehearsed evasive manoeuvres. The limo’s engine disturbed the almost trance like reverie of its four passengers. Steve deployed from the other side of the car and rapidly armed himself with a small stick. In mere seconds, Jack and Ollie hugged each other and whimpered pathetically. With decisive ambiguity, Dom turned the wheels first one way and then the other. Then he revved the engine. Steve, on tippy-toes, waved his stick several metres away; at least four flies dropped from the air, stunned but not seriously wounded.

The snake, moving at a constant speed, was at this point halfway to the limousine.
a. How many times could Steve wave his stick before the snake devoured the four intrepid cowards whole?
b. Estimate the increase in body temperature of the two men hugging in the duration of the snake’s journey.

Just as the snake reached the car, Dom managed to drive forwards 30cm. Steve ‘Irwin’ Brace flicked the stick quite close the monster. Ollie scrunched his eyes tighter and snuck one hand onto Jack’s thigh. The impotent revving of the petrol-burning, 2.7 Litre V6 engine crescendoed as Dom jammed his foot down in terrified paralysis.

Then the snake got into the car and that’s the last we saw of it.

We gingerly loaded our things into the now-deadly limousine. What happens when a snake becomes one with a Rover limousine? No-one really knows (send help).

The day slid by in the wake of our serpentine encounter. We made excellent progress along graciously featureless roads and were soon only 200km from Almaty. Our daily dose of excitement was not quite over, however. Whoever said that snakes were a bad omen may well be smirking into their tarot cards: attempting to cross the junction that divides the roads to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and Almaty, Kazakhstan, the engine suddenly stopped powering the wheels. A loud click followed by a whirring rattle signalled the demise of our bodged drive shaft. That singular, tortured piece of steel had brought us 1000km along testing roads, down off-road tracks to military bases and up mountains. Now, just 200km away from the delivery destination of its replacement, it had failed.

We pushed the limousine to an adjacent fuel station. Once we had got past the bitching irony of the bastard situation, we contemplated our crappy options. We were too far to be feasibly towed by a taxi, too remote to get public transport and collect the new shaft and the distance was slightly too long for any local to tow us for free. On the up side, every Mongol Rally car going through Kazakhstan was likely to travel through this precise junction, whether they came from Aqtau, Uzbekistan or Bishkek. To catch their attention, Jack, being the most noticeable team member, donned our most noticeable t shirt and stood a conveniently distant 200m from the rest of the team. Dom bothered locals in 4x4s, predominantly talking to their English-speaking children. Steve and Ollie took the wheel off to get a closer look, confirming that the problem was the drive shaft. Somehow, the two pins which held the shaft together had slid out, as though pushed through by a pair of sharp fang-like shapes…

Whilst we waited, several police cars arrived at the scene. Your average Kazakh policeman is 5ft 9, wears an excessively big hat and has 4.7 gold teeth. He speaks 7 words of English (“London is the capital of Great Britain”) and knows the names of 20-30 Premier League football players. None of these facts make him particularly well-suited to understanding that you need your limousine towed to Almaty because that’s where England’s last two Rover 827 drive shafts are heading, though the hats do afford some shelter from the sun. At its zenith, the police presence around the limousine was 5 cars and 8 police officers in a variety of marked and unmarked vehicles (including the compulsory Lada). After some confusion Steve was arrested. It took some time before, taking turns to talk slowly into Jack’s phone (the indignity of Google Translate), we realised they were there to protect us. They even gave us some ice tea to drink.



Throughout, locals from nearby establishments wandered over to find out what we were doing. In a lengthy dialogue with a local mechanic, who was drawn to the affray, we were able to convey what we needed and the price we were willing to pay. The mechanic proceeded to call two numbers we had found for trucks and negotiated on our behalf. Then, Dom lost an arm wrestle to an old man. But in Dom’s defence, the guy was a titan.

Dom 0, People of Central Asia 2

Suddenly noticing a passing tow truck, Dom and Ollie ran alongside until they had pressured it off the road. Ollie forced the door and they clambered inside. After 5 minutes of excited pointing and “da”-ing, we had agreed a price of $150 for a tow in an hour’s time. Returning to the car to find the helpful mechanic flushed with success, we realised that this was probably the second tow truck we had secured. Hoping we were wrong, we settled down to wait.

A tow truck arrived. We noticed that there were only two spare seats in the front of the truck. And there were four of us. After some careful maths, we agreed that the current situation was untenable. Additionally, knowing that it was certainly a violation of some law or another for two of us to be in the limo whilst it was slung up on the truck, we attempted to say goodbye to our police escort prematurely. Whilst this was going on, a second tow truck arrived and, after a fairly heated dispute, left again.


We shouldn’t have worried: before they left, our protective enclave indicated that two of us should get in the limo. And that we should keep the lights off and the door closed… So Jack and Dom got drunk on kiwi juice and vodka whilst Steve and Ollie chatted up the truck driver.

This day continues in Kazakhstan part 3

Kazakhstan Part 1

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.

tulip fountain shymkent mongol rally limo 2014 team blog

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.

hotel shymkent sardar mongol rally 2014 limo team blog

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”.

buying used tshirts in kazakhstan by the kilo mongol rally limo blog team 2014

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.

mongol rally 2014 limo blog team sauna

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.”

Dom: “Ah”.

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.

Uzbekistan Part 3


We woke at 6.30am to the same Uzbek pop playing full blast. We had the standard sausage and eggs boiled in oil with chai. We bought fuel from the truck stop owner, served in the traditional Uzbek way (from plastic 2 litre bottles) and set off towards Bukhara and Samarkand.

Bhukara was the only city in Uzbekistan where there was even a single petrol station purporting to sell petrol. However, the only petrol station in Uzbekistan with petrol did not have any petrol. The 150m long queue had formed to wait a full 6 hours for fuel to arrive later that day. In that queue, we found several Mongol Rally teams, including our friends in the trusty Ford Escort. Bathed and fed in Bhukara, they looked significantly cleaner than us at this point. Abandonning the queue, the next couple of hours was spent in convoy searching for fuel in the standard way; finding someone’s garage, haggling and squeezing old Fanta bottles full of an unknown liquid into our petrol tank. We made sure to fill a jerry can this time, enough to get us out of Uzbekistan, before we set off for Samarkand.


Samarkand contained, undoubtedly, the best value hostel we saw on the trip. Our $10 per person bought us unlimited tea and watermelon, breakfast and en suite double rooms. It bought us relaxation in the vine-shaded, cushion-filled courtyard and the company of long-distance travellers of a similar kind to Mongol Ralliers; cyclists travelling from Spain to China, hitchhikers travelling from China to Italy and so forth. It was here too that we were reunited with Just Add Water, reforming the core of the fateful Turkmen convoy.


Samarkand is a beautiful city, but it is not quite set up for tourism. The nearest bar/restaurant was an (admittedly very pleasant) 45 minute walk away (our hostel was situated in the centre of Samakand, 5 minutes from the Registan). The Blues Café, Lonely Planet’s sole recommendation, was a highly idiosyncratic pastiche of what you might find in London under a similar name. They played Joss Stone tracks, served cold beer and had pictures of Michael Jackson on the walls. It was a comfortable, reasonably priced evening nevertheless. They did have a power cut and run out of vegetables (despite almost every menu item containing vegetables) but we made our own fun, provoking Jack into telling long lies and playing “No More Women”; a parlour game that is not as sexist as it sounds.

We took a taxi back to the hostel and drank the whiskey that we had gifted the Ford Escort for helping us escape hell. Dom went to sleep fully dressed, spread eagled and diagonal across the bed. When Steve tried to move him, Dom gripped the bed tightly and held his positon without waking. The limo suffered drunken damage, losing one flagpole, misplacing the air from its tires and carelessly mislaying some of its paint. The absent paint spelt out a pair of unfortunate words. The first word was “limo”. The second rhymes with “acrobatic stunts”. We suspected the Escort team, it closely matched their Modus Operandi (childish pranks. The bastards.)



Overnight, someone had nicked our other flagpole. We also realised that both the basil and the bonsai were no more. They had wilted irreparably. Their leaves were shrivelled and brown like the papery testicle-skin of an aged cyclist (note: if you are an aged cyclist, check testicles to render image more vivid). The stems looked like the stems of a dead plant. The basil probably would not have made a Bolognese even slightly more aromatic. The bonsai was dead. Its leaves had all fallen off, leaving it benuded and claw-like. No amount of mouth-to-mouth would revive either plant. “Frere bread” said Jack, with a mouth full of dry soil. Wiring the plants up to the battery and jump-starting them proved inefficacious “it’s not the battery” said Ollie, scratching his head. Dom: “Leaf ‘em alone. This is part of their root-ine.” Dom looked over at Steve for support “sorry, I only do political and nautical puns. Plus, I don’t think they’re just depressed. I can sea from here that you’ve gone way overboard, sailed too close to the wind; they just needed a vote of confidence, coup-dn’t you Just elect a suitable method of deposing of them?” replied Steve. Yes, the plants were deceased. We decided that a burial seemed somehow inappropriate. “If anything we ought to do the opposite!” After collecting the scattered plants, we concluded that throwing them into the air was far too undignified a way for them to go.

We offloaded the bonsai onto the owner of the hostel by convincing him that it was “just resting” and chucked the Basil in a nearby bush.


To mourn our loss, we decided to revenge ourselves upon the Ford Escort. Sun cream on every surface upon which a hand might unwittingly rest. A roll of toilet paper unreeled inside the vehicle. A grinning portrait of Dom in permanent marker on the driver’s side wing mirror. A cigarette glued to the rubber Donkey, Hendrix, which had straddled their roof for several thousand miles. We also stole Hendrix’s voice, glued their windscreen wipers to their windscreen, pried the word “flight” from their car (and glued it onto ours). But we did not piss in their tent. Then, as they left, we egged the bastards. That’s what friends are for. One of the eggs sailed in through the window and hit Elsie in the face without breaking. It came back at us. The circle of life.

We also gave Just Add Water the front badge from the Rover; with its Viking longboat it fitted more closely with the theme of their trip (boats and stuff). They in turn gave their Skoda badge to Sam the motorcyclist. They all left that morning for the Pamir highway.

With everyone gone, we chose to stay in Samarkand an extra night. We used the time to source a new drive shaft for the Rover, postulating that the bodge would not last the remaining several thousand miles. Ollie’s brother Alex co-ordinated from home and we were confident we could time the part to arrive to Almaty just as we arrived. Parcels2Go was the reliable household name we chose to stake the success of our trip upon.

That afternoon, Dom and Jack headed over to the bazaar. Jack had been searching since Istanbul for a long flowing “ethnic garb” to cover his supple form. When he returned, his form remain exposed to piercing sun from which he desired respite. The garb would need to wait another day. They were more successful in the search for sandals. The hardest part was finding anything that would fit Jack’s massive feet. In the whole of Samarkand’s largest bazaar, there were only two sets that fit Jack. The pair we settled on did not fit Jack. But the men who sold them to us repeatedly pointed to one among their number, shouting

“Jim Carey!”

“We’ll take them” decided Dom, in spite of the tremendous absence of style in the black, silver and red fake Adidas slippers. Jim Carey is one of Dom’s favourite actors.

To celebrate our success, Jack went for a shave. “I want to be shaved with a cut throat razor. By another man.” This had been Jack’s mantra since well before Turkey.


Walking back towards the hostel we met a straggly group of white men with beards and “traditional” shirts. It was, of course, a Mongol Rally team. But we had seen this particular team 3 times previously during the rally, despite taking a route that deviated from theirs by several thousand miles. It was one of the Nissan Micra teams from Baku, from the Turkey-Georgia order, from a Romanian petrol station. They were the saints who lightened our luggage to the score of two camping chairs. Jack and Dom, temporarily brain damaged by the astounding coincidence of the situation, failed to reclaim the chairs. Our Mongol Rally is littered with heart-rending tragedies and devastating regrets.

Back at the hostel, we relaxed with yet another Mongol Rally team. These guys had been at the hostel for 5 days already with water in the engine of their car. They were getting pretty good at chess by the time we met them.


Rice pudding for breakfast. The stuff that dreams (and probably also clouds) are made of. We used our morning to collect Ollie’s bag from a hotel a short distance from our hostel, send postcards and see some of the sites. This was the second time on the trip so far that we had chosen to engage in such activities. In much the same fashion as our attempt to see the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, we got round to seeing a small chunk of the magnificent Registan before we got into the car and left. We put $5 into the shirt pocket of the guard and walked into a fairly attractive square. There was a partially restored mosque on one side, cordoned off from the public. We walked around the cordon and had a look inside – it was OK. Dom picked up a bit of the mosque that had fallen off and attached it to the car. Steve tried to get up one of the minarets but just ended up in the staffroom, drinking coffee and laughing uproariously at jokes the staff made in Uzbek. We did try to sit and take it in. “This,” said Steve gazing around, eyes shining, “is shit”. Then we went to Tashkent, with a view to getting to Kazakhstan that evening.

The roads in Samarkand are really awful. There are no road markings, very, very large potholes. There are alleys wide enough to allow a single car to pass that are bordered by deep gullies – somehow, the traffic flows in both directions along them whilst weddings merrily go on in amidst the struggling cars. These elements form an essential part of getting around Samarkand.


The road to Tashkent was uneventful but for frequent police checks. Once we arrived on the outskirts of Tashkent, our engine over-heated. The fuse protecting our fans had melted, calling for an impromptu bout of roadside rewiring. With very little spare wire and only a few scraps of tape left, this was a bit of a struggle. The limo, as always, had also pulled in a small crowd, who thronged Steve and Ollie as they attempted to move around the car. Overcoming even these harsh realities (strangers removing parts from their hands in an attempt to help, rapping Russian at the disconsolate duo, cheerfully engaging them in conversation), the pair were able to rewire the fuse in front of the radiator, a move they had been planning for some time, in order to facilitate better air flow.

We made it to the border before dark. It was a 24 hour border for pedestrians, but appeared permanently closed to cars. We did try to drive through it anyway, from a couple of different angles, but the concrete blockade and armed guards eventually bettered our mild invasion. We then took an 80km detour to Yallama, the nearest border-crossing for cars. The border was quiet and the crossing simple. We did enjoy befriending the guards, several of who scribbled what we can only guess to be wishes of good luck onto our roof. Meanwhile, a sniffer dog sat down in the driver’s seat of the car. He gazed longingly through the windscreen. We are convinced that the dog was temporarily intoxicated by the spirit of adventure that must have been in strong in the cockpit of our machine.

While Ollie did his paperwork, Jack, Steve and Dom witnessed an unsettling event in the office. A border guard confronted a lady selling beer. Then, a person attempting to cross the border foolishly stood toe to toe with the same border guard and yelled into his face. This lead to that person being escorted from the building. Steve thought that this looked fun and was tempted to give it a go, but we pacified him with a Gameboy that had Tetris inserted. The trials and tribulations of that tempestuous game caused such a commotion from us that the border guards moved to confiscate the offending item. We hurriedly a little further moved away but were periodically pestered by the border guards until we left the country.

Later, we were in Kazakhstan. The other side of the border-crossing into Kazakhstan is a fine sight. The reception area is with resplendent with dust-soaked gravel that rises gracefully with every footstep. Two fourteen year olds with truly remarkable sales skills, perched precariously on a fence will attempt to sell you insurance. The corrugated metal fences and absence of any tacky “Welcome to Kazakhstan” type signs create an immersive experience – it really feels like you have entered Kazakhstan.

So there we were, in Kazakhstan, at night. We tried to find somewhere to camp. Our usual strategy is to drive down lanes and tracks that we hope will go nowhere in particular. Upon one such excursion in obfuscating darkness, we stumbled into, and sharply reversed back out of, what appeared to be a back-of-the-lorry, counterfeit fruit deal. We kept on into the night until we reached a small village.

There is a certain type of café/restaurant that also doubles as a ‘guesthouse’. You can tell these by the tables, which are like beds with a removable wooden rectangular central piece. Most of these places will allow you to sleep outside, providing blankets and pillows. It’s actually pretty comfortable, is always outstandingly cheap and makes it easy to get breakfast in the morning. We found such a place in the village. Upon arrival, Jack and I walked into reception to try and find the owner. She strenuously ignored us for as long as possible, returning after a few minutes to answer each of our questions in turn. Later, we drank with the locals. They only knew one word in English; “OK”. They drunkenly only referred to us as “Brad”. We later discovered that this meant “brother”. At the time, we just thought they were confused. The owners eventually kicked the locals out and waited outside the restaurant until everyone was out of sight. Dogs barked nearby. Welcome to Kazakhstan, we said to ourselves as we drifted off. Welcome to Kazakhstan.

Uzbekistan Part 2

In Turkmenistan, the petrol is incredibly cheap, available at regular intervals at politely staffed petrol stations, many of which take Visa. Perhaps because of this, the locals have driven the roads ragged. In Uzebekistan, the contrary problem is evident. We did not see a single petrol station selling petrol for the whole of our time in that country. Even if we could find petrol, we also could not find a single ATM from which we could withdraw cash to pay for it. Perhaps because of this, the roads are pre-eminently passable.

As a result, whilst the car was being dismantled with home-welded hammers, Jack and Dom were walking around in 40C heat trying to withdraw money.

After being directed to four different banks, the 5th bank that Jack tried took VISA. The maximum withdrawal amount was equivalent of $100 (USD), which gets you 237,800 SOM in local currency. It felt like monopoly money and the 200 SOM notes almost had the same value, being worth just 5p each. Jack found out his pockets weren’t big enough and required a plastic bag to hold all the dough.

piles of uzbek cash

Returning to the bank with a second debit card, Jack and Dom were excited to be informed that all of the cash money dollar had gone home for lunch or something. A lengthy trek to a second bank was rewarded with Dollars available at a 6% commission. They returned empty-handed and grabbed some lunch from a local café. With no idea of what anything was on the menu, they received dumplings, bread and cold water for two for the grand total of £3.75.

That night we threw wads of cash at each other in a hotel room. It was like that scene in Mission Impossible when they have pulled off the heist, except each wad of cash was worth about as much as a roll of toilet paper (which is admittedly more valuable the further East you go).


To celebrate, we walked around Nukus looking for beer and food. Nukus is an interesting city, I suppose. It is characterised by soviet fetishism for geometry (without the grandeur) coalescing with an absence of concern for practicality or finishing things. That is to say: it’s square and ugly. The roads switch capriciously between thick dust concealing large holes and fair tarmac. Nukus covers an irritatingly large geographic area: a diffuse suburban grid with no clear centre or public transport, around which you may occasionally happen upon ornamental squares. These squares are always partly overgrown, partly dying, giving them the unkempt feel of the undead. Whereas in a European city, a central square will often be framed by smart flats topped with penthouses, Nukus’ squares are bordered by the occasional, jutting apartment building placed asymmetrically to everything else and maybe an “OK, go on then” grade kebab restaurant. It was at such an establishment that we ate kebabs. After we had finished our kebabs, six bowls of plain rice arrived.


We got our tow eye fixed first thing in the morning and repeated our cash search before moving off en-route to Bukhara. It was around then that we realised that the petrol shortage was endemic. We did, however, stop at tens of petrol stations before sluggishly arriving at this conclusion. We saw a petrol station purporting to have petrol just once in Uzbekistan: as you will later discover, this was not a fruitful discovery.


Reclining in the leather chairs of the Rover, looking out through tinted windows, we used philosophy to deduce several possible causes of the fuel shortage:

  1. Uzbekistan exports so much fuel that it has caused a semi-permanent domestic fuel shortage
  2. It was cotton picking season in Uzbekistan and all the machinery was using up the fuel (Uzbekistan, #4 exporter of cotton)
  3. Supply and Demand were actually in perfect equilibrium, it was just the case that, given intense uncertainty over whether this supply would continue, locals would drain petrol stations each time they were filled (Economics 101)
  4. A fleet of Rover limousines had passed by recently
  5. The petrol was “in the post”

Nevertheless, it is fairly simple to come by “Benzin” in Uzbekistan if you just implement these tried and tested methods:

  1. Pull a hauntingly forlorn facial expression whilst waiting by a petrol pump in an abandoned fuel station.
  2. Pull up to groups of men you find throughout populated areas and shout “Benzin!? Eh!? Eh!” at them out of the window. Two will peel away from the main group after a heated discussion and lead you away. The car they climb into will probably be a cream Lada from circa 1990. They will take you to a garage full of 2 litre plastic bottled full of yellowish liquid and there a man, who obviously occasionally drinks his own stock, will charge you either an astronomical or a suspiciously reasonable price.
  3. Drive with your horn held down with one team member’s entire upper body out of the passenger-side window (a sun roof will work just as well) violently waving an empty jerry can
  4. Drill, refine, repeat
  5. Look for empty plastic bottles by the side of the road, these signal “fuel here”

On the move, with barely any fuel in the tank, we were overtaken by a Mongol Rally team. They sped past us, one team member with his entire upper body out of the passenger window violently waving an empty jerry can (that’s how it’s done, we nodded sagely to one another, impressed). As they went by, they gestured that they had to drive quickly in order to get to fuel soon, as they were running low. Our nodding became more confused. Sort of half circles in lateral and vertical directions.

The Lonely Planet, anecdotes and other dubious information sources had put ‘Plov’ on our minds. It was getting late and we thought that it would be a good time to try and find it. For four men travelling without the comforts of home, this was only natural. We were told we should try it in varied locations, as it would be different every time. Different ‘stans and regions spice their Plov up in different ways and some places make it slow whilst others turn the heat up and get it going quickly. We had done a couple of quick web searches but came to understand that the local women would do it better than we could by ourselves; they’ve had the practice and know the secrets, passed down from their mothers. With some embarrassment incurred, we had searched in vain for Plov in Nukus. It is hard to know who or how to ask for such an intimate thing and we imagined there might be a level of resentment towards foreigners impinging. Dom, having heard we would not have any trouble getting himself some, was getting quite heated about the fruitlessness of our search and by now was feeling quite un(P)loved.
We were hungry. Our experience of Uzbek food to date had really only involved kebabs and dumplings. We tried two separate places to find that they had only one large frozen fish each. This was surprising. We carried on, only to see the Rally team that had passed us earlier. Together we ate at a roadside restaurant and became friendly with a man purporting to be a manager at a major oil corporation. After beers, spaghetti soup and kebabs, we split with the Jimny and the other team, who intended to make it to Bhukara that night, whilst we preferred to camp.


The light faded quickly. Without full beams on, it was impossible to see the road. Seeing the road was essential for avoiding the pot holes. The Uzbek Pot Hole only comes out at night; this is how it evades repair. It can be seen leaping from one side of the road to the other in order to trap its prey; its staple food being the common or garden variety Rover Limousine. Growing tired of these shenanigans, we searched with increasing urgency for somewhere to pull over to sleep. A track appeared and disappeared on the left; “track to Starboard” yelled Jack. This confused Dom, who was not used to conversing in nautical terms. We drove past it. “Is that another one?” asked Dom, just a metre or two later. “Uhm I don’t –“. Dom pulled off the road.

Had it been daylight, he would have remembered that this road led through a desert and that deserts predominantly contain sand. He would have further realised that the limousine is averse to sand, as we had proved driving to the door to hell. Following this chain of logic, he would not have driven the limousine directly into a deep well of soft sand. With its rear end obstructing traffic and its front end mired, the limo was in a tight spot. “We’ll push it out” said Dom hopefully. We’ll push the 2 ton limousine out of the sand. “Prove me wrong!” he cried defiantly. Leaning to, the four pushed the limo. At first it seemed hopeless. Then they all heard it creak. It was hopeless. The creaking was Dom’s defiance being crippled.

It’s not every day that you see an English limousine parked horizontally across a road in Uzbekistan. In the middle of the night. In the middle of nowhere. Either this fact, or the fact that we were obstructing traffic in both directions, lead to a crowd forming. It was a minor circus. Lorry drivers held down their horns, whilst people mobbed the scene, shouted in broken English, Russian and Uzbek. The headlights of vehicles parked haphazardly across the road criss-crossed the area with intense beams of dazzling light.

Someone volunteered to tow us out. It was relatively easy and the limo popped right out of the desert and back onto the road. Then it hit the car towing it. “Dom, what the fuck!” “$50, $50!” chanted the baying mob. We (Dom) had grazed the bumper of the white sedan who had so kindly offered to help us out. “$50!” Dom reached into the front of his shorts. Uzbek women, watching, giggled hysterically. He pulled out his …wallet. We paid up and left.
Just a few miles down the road Jack spotted a truck stop and suggested asking if we could sleep there. Adjusting a sentence we found in the “Romance” section of our phrasebook, we asked if we could stay the night. The price shocked us all. It came in at 75p per person.


After a beer, Jack and Ollie were in with the locals who promptly gave them shots of vodka. They put on a video of an Uzbek pop star and we all went to bed.