Monday, September 17, 2012

Part VII : Doubling Our Distance in 96 Hours

After sleeping for a few hours in the car in front of the least sketchy looking building (a topic of no small debate within the team) in a small border town in Kazakhstan, we were awakened by a local so intrigued by our cars and ourselves that he simply had to wake us to talk to us. He didn't seem to mind that we were groggy and some of us shirtless. He insisted on having a picture taken with us and we answered all of his many questions before saying a pleasant goodbye, eating a very quick breakfast of cold oatmeal, and continuing on down the “road” to Atyrau.

We ran into some unexpected bureaucracy in Atyrau. As is standard practice for visa-required countries, if we were in Kazakhstan for more than 5 days, we needed to register with the government/police. Since we had planned at least 5 days to cross the country, we decided to be safe and register in Atyrau. While getting into the city, we stopped in a random alley to find an ATM, and were surprised to see two Mongol Rally cars! They were both English teams, and after meeting the whole gang, they mentioned that they needed to register as well. So, as a mighty legion of travelers we set out to find the nearest bureaucracy to accomplish this task.

After tracking down a police station (more like a police booth in reality), we were told to come back after lunch (which happens from about 1:00PM-3:00PM in Kazakhstan), and then being told that the building we wanted was actually down the street. After walking down the street, finding nothing, asking locals, and then venturing through several sketchy unmarked doors, we finally found the registration office.

After speaking at length with the officials in broken English, we were asked to fill out some complex paperwork and supply them with copies of several of our travel documents (though they staunchly refused to let us use their copier or tell us where we could find one). After finding a copier at a local store, we submitted our documents and played the waiting game for several hours until they were processed. Suspiciously, we were given our stuff back minutes before they closed and well after other groups who submitted their documents after us. However, the deed was done and many miles of Kazakhstan “roads” lay were laid before us, so we soldiered on.

At the far edge of the Atyrau, we stopped for gas with the British group and, purely by chance, ran into a man the Brits had met a few hundred miles earlier! He recommended we take a major detour to avoid the most direct road, which he assured us was in terrible condition. After some debate, we decided to take his advice and the detour, meaning we would head 500 km North, perpendicular to our intended direction through the country. This made us nervous, having already lost more time than we would have liked due to the ferry and the registration process, but we resolved to push our days as long as possible, and (if the roads allowed it) into the night as well.

The detour turned out to be incredibly smooth, and we made great time to Oral, the northern waypoint of our revised route. However, it was dark when we arrived and our new redcoat companions decided to camp just outside the city instead of joining us in our push. So, we pressed on alone.

Emboldened by the recent pristine roads, we set an aggressive pace towards Aktobe. For the most part the roads were excellent this direction as well, with the exception of some active construction that simply required slow driving on dirt road detours. Or so we thought.

About two hours outside Oral, just after rejoining the pavement in a construction zone, the Perodua hit a serious pothole. The pothole damaged both left wheels, and we found that the right front wheel was damaged as well, although not seriously enough to require replacement. This was slightly good news, because of the two and a half spares we had (the half being the half-sized spare, or “doughnut”), only one and a half would fit the Perodua. Two quick jacks and several turns of a wrench later, we continued driving through the night at a reduced pace, both for the sake of the remaining wheels and the limitations of the doughnut.

We arrived in Aktobe around noon in desperate need of wheel service. After asking half a dozen people and visiting as many supposed wheel mechanics with zero success (even one that had a picture of wheels on its sign was no help), we decided to visit the last, and decidedly most sketchy location we were recommended to. Salvation! With nothing more than an old house full of soviet-era industrial equipment and two determined men, we managed to fix all of our wheels in about an hour and they only charged us around $15! We threw in some whiskey and had them sign the car as a sign of gratitude. In return, they gave us their lucky car charm and insisted we take a picture with them.

With spirits high on new wheels and Kazakh hospitality, we continued the record-setting (as far as we can tell) push, now headed towards the new capital, Astana. Just as before, we encountered an enormous construction project during the graveyard shift and, like before, it forced us off onto a hastily made dirt detour. Unlike before, it had recently rained in the area, which made navigating the detour a far trickier task. With travel-weary eyes and the dead of the night working against us, we couldn't figure out how to avoid what appeared to be lake-sized puddles, so we decided to sleep for a few hours until sunrise and reassess the situation then.

When the next day came, it was indeed easier to find our way through the vexing maze of puddles, but one problem remained: we had no idea how to get back onto the highway. After meandering through some fields, farms, and villages at a glacial pace with the highway always in view but never accessible, we noticed that all of the trucks and traffic was passing on the other side of the highway. Reluctantly, we backtracked to the start of the detour and turned the opposite way off the highway. However, this did not make the task of moving forward any easier. The rain did not discriminate at all between the sides of the highway and the “puddlakes” on the correct side were only conquered with an exhausting combination of tow ropes, luck, and getting comically muddy.

An example of the damage to cleanliness a bog in Kazakhstan can do 
By this point we had been driving almost constantly for 3 days, and with the schedule looming over our consciences and the difficulty of the roads multiplying our stress to uncomfortable levels, we decided to take a break. After one last long day of driving, we finally arrived in Astana and treated ourselves to a hotel (though it only cost about $6 per person). The prospect of showers alone were worth that much to us, considering they were our first since leaving Trabzon, Turkey. We slept in, had a good breakfast, and ran some quick errands in the city before driving towards Pavlodar and the border back into Russia.

Getting some fruit in an alley in Astana
We arrived just before the border at around 8 PM, and after cooking ourselves some dinner (the first time in the trip we elected to use the camping stoves), we decided to get through the border that night, and continue our epic push streak through the night to get to Barnaul by the following morning, which would put us back on our original schedule despite the best efforts of the ferry, Russian police, and Kazakh potholes. In all, we crossed Kazakhstan in about 90 hours over 5 days (rendering the bureaucracy of registering paradoxically unnecessary), a pace that most teams we met afterward reeled at (the average we heard was between 7 and 9 days).

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