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.
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:
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.
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.