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Kazakhstan

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BORDER CROSSING DETAILS:

The Kazak’s have a fierce reputation for being officious and corrupt yet we found the border crossing to be busy but simple enough, although they only let 2 cars at a time into the border area and, as a result, it turns into a bit of a scrum! Make sure you complete your immigration card and get it stamped. The only thing that was mildly confusing was trying to obtain a customs sheet for our car, we did try to ask but were simply asked for our carnet, which was glanced at, then waved away. We asked again at the passport check area, but were waved onto the insurance office and it was there that our carnet was inspected and an extra sheet of paper was stapled to our insurance documents. Insurance cost £6. Thinking all was clear we drove to Almaty to start our routine lengthy and frustrating search for somewhere to stay. It is terrifying how expensive the city is and after 4 hours we called it a day, swallowed our pride and booked into the Alma Ata Hotel at £75 a night - Ouch!!

 It’s been a funny old day, we have been overwhelmed by the welcome we received from people, as soon as we crossed the border everyone was smiling, waving, shouting welcome or tooting their horns to catch our attention to say hello. Yet we can’t shake that nagging feeling that we’ve jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. We end the day on a temporary high after meeting some expats in the hotel beer garden and spend a great evening getting to know our new friends.

The following day we try the Russian embassy only to find that today is a ‘Move to Russia’ visa day only!! We are told that we should get our Russian visa tomorrow. We source a cheaper hotel- Kazzhol at £70 a night—everywhere else is fully booked or unsuitable. Another night on the tiles with our expat friends and the next day it’s back to the Russian embassy- ‘Come back Monday’. A German couple turn up in Almaty full of horror stories about Olga the Russia visa lady in Bishkek, their tales of woe reassure us that we made the right decision to come here but do nothing to ease our building stress of ever getting out of Central Asia– everyone we meet is full of visa horror stories.

We check out our ‘ last resort’ option of rail heading Nessie to the visa friendlier country of Georgia -$5,000 to Poti. (Thank God it never came to that as the Russians invaded Georgia and bombed port Poti very heavily at the time that Nessie would have arrived!!!!) Of course another option would be for one of us to fly back to Europe with both passports, get our visa’s and come back BUT if you are caught here without your passport you are in serious trouble. This is exactly the reason we wanted 2 passports each but the UK refused us on application!

Worry, worry, worry, stress, stress, stress...........

Nessie goes into the local Landrover garage to get a good service and a new timing belt– it’s after the belt is taken off they discover they have to ship over  new timing gear from the UK. We end up in a no onward visa, non drivable car, expensive hotels, corrupt police, visa running out, passport full and needs replaced, bank emptying rapidly, customs refusing to release new parts HELL.

It’s fair to say Kazakhstan became the nemesis of our trip. Oh, and did I mention? The slip of paper stapled onto our insurance was not an import slip! We had to go all the way back to the border in a taxi to get our custom import form– luckily Dave found the head of customs and explained that our car was in the garage and we had returned as soon as we realised our error. (Our shipping agent in Almaty had told us it would cost $700 dollars in fines and then  ‘whatever customs want’ to resolve the problem.) The customs officer was very accommodating and gave us a 3 month import form– no bribery, no problem. So we start to look at the option of leaving Nessie in Almaty, catching a bus to China (Urumqi) where we can apply for our Russian visa with relative ease if Monday proves to be another Russian embassy goose chase!

The search for a cheaper hotel results in us finding a room in the Zhetisu Hotel- £36 and that was the best deal we could find! But there is some good luck on our side– the expats are entertaining us on a nightly basis to the point of alcoholic poisoning– ha ha. Thanks for the great nights out guys!!! Plus the Landrover garage are so embarrassed about the situation that they are doing all the work for free AND paying for the parts AND the custom ‘release fees’.  Not only that but 2 of our expat friends are flying back to the UK for a 10 day break and have asked us to house sit their million dollar apartment– WOOOO HOOOOOO!!!!!!!

We do eventually get our Russian visa’s thanks to the ridiculously friendly Mr Sharikov at the embassy. Nessies parts do eventually get released from customs and Bagdat puts his best mechanic on a night shift to get her ready for first thing the following day.   

We have asked a fellow overlander what the road conditions are like on the Turkistan route to the south and are told 3-5 days should get us from Almaty to the Russian border near Astrakhan. No-one seems to know about the conditions north of Turkistan or west of Astana. We look at all our options and consider driving directly north to the Russian border but with only a 5 day transit visa we are concerned that we may not have enough time to get to the Ukraine. We’ve heard the roads are bad plus we have named our crossing point as Astrakhan on our visa application and don’t want to risk changing our point of entry. No information is available on the road west of Astana and everyone seems to favour the Aralsk route-so we decide to go that way.

It’s on our way to Turkistan that we stop for our first and last police check point– it resulted in a £20 ‘fine’ for everyone who pulled over when asked; Uzbek, Kyrgyz, foreigner. We make the decision that we will not be stopping again– we have neither the funds nor time to mess around negotiating ‘fines’! After 9 hours of driving we stop at Taraz for the night. The following day we have a more relaxed drive of 6 hours and after several checkpoints, where we refused to stop, we reach Turkistan.

More police and checkpoint dodging plus 8.5 hours of driving find us in Aralsk. Security is obviously a problem here as our car is taken to a gated private parking area and all the bikers have to haul their bikes into the reception area of the hotel at night to get locked in! The bikers are a friendly bunch who have come down from Russia, we ask about the roads and the news is grim– they actually laugh in our faces when we explain what we are trying to do in our given time frame!!

We get up at 5am the next day to push hard on a BAD road.

ARALSK to AQTOBE ROAD;  (Aralsk to Irgiz crossroads took 4.5 hours)

Driving north– the first 72 miles are good and surfaced: 1.5 hours.

The next 150 miles are VERY bad-  LARGE holes, terrible conditions. It has taken some people 2 days just to cover this route. We kept rejoining the ‘road’ to see if things had improved– they hadn’t. The best thing to do is to follow the dirt tracks that run parallel to the road– when these become too bad just drive on the grass: 6 hours.

The last section is good and should only take: 4 hours.

It is a very isolated road, trucks and cars sit broken down at the side of the road and there was no-where to buy fuel. We have been told that conditions are IMPOSSIBLE if it rains, and we can well imagine. It had rained 3 days before and we were very cautious of entering the muddy dirt tracks, fearful the puddles were hiding deep clawing mud holes! We had hoped to turn west half way along this route and take the ‘ short cut’ to Atyrau but we are told it is in even worse condition than this road!!!! Unbelievable but the bikers did it and it took 2 days just to get from Atyrau to the Igriz crossroads!

We arrive in Aqtobe knackered and refuse to stop at the town entry checkpoint, even when they sound the siren on their car!  We find a hotel that has a ‘hidden’ security carpark to the rear– we are keen to dodge the cops! A few hand gesture conversations with the very friendly locals and we are in no illusion that the road from here to Atyrau is AWFUL and that we should take the long way round via Uralsk.

We get up again at 5am.

AQTOBE to URALSK and ATYRAU ROAD;

First 146 miles are on a bumpy road, on and off dirt tracks as you have to detour for road upgrading: 3.5 hours.

After that it’s a gorgeous smooth asphalt surface. Wooopeeeeee!!!!!!

It took a total of 6.5 hours driving to get to the Uralsk bypass then a further 6 hours to get to Atyrau.

All of our above times are DRIVING only and do not include toilet or repair stops!

We had to stop Nessie near the Irgiz crossroads to do an ugly running repair on our collapsing solar panel frame, which had been shaken to death and, 110km’s north of Atyrau, we had a moment of sheer panic when Nessie suddenly stopped– fearing the worst Rose leapt out of the car and flagged down a passing truck. We thought we may have to be towed to the Russian border– we had shaken a relay loose on the road and none of our instrument panel gauges or indicators worked– we had simply ran out of diesel!! Thank God!!!

We spent the night in Atyrau , got up at what we thought was 5 am but it turned out we had missed yet another time change and it was actually 4am, and drove the 3.5 hours to the border on a blessed sealed road.

Thank goodness we sorted our customs problem as the customs men were VERY keen to see the form and almost disappointed that we had it– could have been a very expensive moment. We had heard horror stories of travellers getting into all sorts of trouble for not having their immigration cards to hand and not double stamped– Rose deliberately hid hers to see if they would demand it– they didn’t. But we would still advice you to have all your paperwork in order– they do seem to be rather keen to find a problem that results in a fine...

 Goodbye and good riddance to the officialdom of Kazakhstan!!!!

HIGHLIGHTS:

Wandering the tree lined streets of Almaty, especially at the weekends when the parks are groaning with the weight of bridal parties.

Finding peace in the churches of the city.

Calling a cab– What???? In Almaty if you want a taxi just stand on the side of the street and stick your hand out, at least one local car will stop– you tell them where you want to go and negotiate a price! If they are not going your way the car that pulled in behind them maybe will be. Now we know this sounds odd but that’s the way it’s done in Kazakhstan, no-one ever reports being robbed or assaulted and you get to meet some really interesting people, from business men funding their commuting costs to local families. What a surprise– and what a great experience!

DISAPPOINTMENTS:

Not so much disappointments just surprises– How very expensive everything was, how much money and effort it takes to get here and how very little there is to see when you do arrive. Not a good place to end your trip.

THOUGHTS ON KAZAKHSTAN:

We’re really tempted to put ARRRRRRGH here but that wouldn’t be fair. The Kazak’s are very friendly and helpful with a great sense of humour but the country is an anticlimax. It is the 9th largest country in the world and a huge percentage of it is endless steppe. Maybe travelling in from Russia would be a better way but after the visual delights of China and Kyrgyzstan– it’s a bit bland and overpriced for what you ‘get’. Putting our problems aside we still came to the opinion that it’s not worth the hassle or expense.

FUEL: Prices range from 70– 104 tenge with the average being 96.6 per litre of diesel. Available in the south, seemed to be reasonable quality. It’s when you drive north that things change– from Aralsk north to Aqtobe there was no fuel. Then we discovered in Uralsk that diesel was hard to find– we had to be directed to the only garage in the city that sold diesel. Our next attempted fuel up was just before Atyrau—they were not allowed to sell us any but did so under duress as we had ran dry. In Atyrau they would not fuel us up without tokens– it seems the fuel is heavily discounted in this part of the country and the locals are given vouchers to use, without these they ‘cannot’ fill you up.

Rose explained the situation and negotiated with the garage who agreed to let us buy some at a tax added price which still worked out cheaper than the cost per litre in Almaty.

SHOPPING: Big choice of western style supermarkets in Almaty– at a price!

WATER: We stayed in hotels for our entire trip so never needed to top up– shouldn’t imagine there would be a problem outside of Aralsk.

ROADS: Road conditions are very good in the south but mixed in the north. The Aralsk to Aqtobe road is being upgraded as we speak– but it is a long, slow process in difficult conditions. We have since heard of a couple who travelled from Uralsk to Astana and Almaty– no reports of bad roads or corrupt cops. Maybe that’s the way to go?

POLICE: Pretty bad. Stories of corruption are rife amongst locals, expats and overlanders. The camouflage uniform police in Almaty are well worth crossing the street to avoid– they are passport police with a terrible reputation. The only thing the British Embassy seem able or willing to do is negotiate ’fees’ with the officials if you get into trouble. Best to avoid anyone in a uniform and although we would NEVER recommend that you ‘run’ police stops- it worked for us. We calculated that we saved a maximum of £400 by not stopping at the check points that are to be found at the entry and exit points of each town and on the roads in-between..

SAFETY: There are stories of people being robbed walking the city streets at night, but nothing worse than you would expect in any large city. We felt very safe in the city and regularly flagged down ‘taxi’s’ even at night with no problems. However we did have the ‘wallet’ scam pulled on us and it was only thanks to our Lonely Planet guide book that we didn’t fall for it!

LANDY: Landy garage in town– is in the process of moving to the road leading to Bishkek. Look for MERCUR signs as you enter Almaty city limits. There is an ARB shop on the main road in and we found a Michelin garage that sold BFG’s– our Coopers are getting pretty tired. You will pay European prices and then maybe some more– it’s not cheap here.

Insurance office at border

ARRIVAL DATE: 18th JUNE  2008

EXCHANGE RATES:

237 Tenge = £1.00

ALMATY– a city packed FULL of stretch limo’s, high spec Range Rovers and expensive weddings.

The traditional churches and Russian religious art works are beautiful.

TURKISTAN, RUNNING REPAIRS AND THE ROAD WHERE EVERY KILOMETRE POST HAS A RESIDENT BIRD OF PREY.

The main road to Russia– it was far worse than it looks! The last photo shows the good alternate dirt tracks and grass that can be driven instead but only when conditions are dry.

FUELLING UP IN AYTRAU BESIDE A LOCAL TRUCK

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