The first 24 hours in Mongolia created a very good first impression. The first 24 hours in Kazakhstan – not so much! The most impactive features of the country in the first day were the omnipresent pot-holes and the police checkpoints. The police checkpoints were not as prolific, but had the potential to be just as annoying!
On 31st May, we left the Altai and headed towards the border with Kazakhstan. We thought we might get a hotel in the town of Rubtsovsk but the place is incredibly run-down. After driving to a couple of different hotels, we soon realised that we were not going to find anywhere suitable there, so decided that we’d find a camping spot. We drove towards the border and eventually saw a dirt track leading off from the highway. We followed it and found a grassy clearing, surrounded by trees, where we could camp out of sight. We had purchased bbq charcoal as soon as we got back into Russia so we were ale to fire up the Bush Pig and grill some salmon and vegetables. There were several cuckoos in the area and they were calling out for most of the evening and the next morning. It reminded me of a Swiss clock shop!
On the morning of 1st June (the first day of my Kazakh visa), we drove the final 10km or so to the border, arriving at the Russian side at 8.30am. Remarkably, we were through the Russian side within 30 minutes, helped no doubt by the fact that Russia and Kazakhstan are part of a joint customs zone, so we only had to pass through Russian immigration. We were again questioned about our visit to Ukraine, and why we had been there. Fortunately, the questioning only lasted a few minutes and we were allowed to proceed. We then had to wait at the gate of the Kazakh side, waiting to be allowed in. Once through the gate, we were processed fairly quickly. The entire border process took about two hours.
For those following behind us, don’t miss the small insurance booth that is located immediately adjacent to the final Kazakh checkpoint. We were able to get 10 days of insurance for the Defender for 350 roubles (equivalent of $1 US per day).
The first couple of hundred metres of road after the border were nice and smooth. It doesn’t last! Soon the relentless pot-holes began. There was no notable scenery to take my eyes off the road. The area is semi-arid and totally flat (boring).
With nothing of interest to distract us, we pushed on and banged out some mileage. Within the first few hours in Kazakhstan, we had been pulled over twice by the police, at the first two checkpoints that we passed. We found those first two officers to be very polite and professional. They both introduced themselves and shook hands with both of us, before requesting passport and vehicle documents. Both sent us on our way promptly when realising that we were English speaking tourists. No problems whatsoever.
We had planned to take two days to reach Ayagoz but, by the end of the first day, we’d covered 262 miles (421 km), which was less than 100 miles from Ayagoz. We stopped at a roadside cafe for dinner and then back-tracked a couple of kilometres to a dirt track we’d seen running off the highway. We followed the track and managed to find a grassy spot that was concealed behind some shrubs. It was on a slope and was bumpy (not ideal) but it was sufficient for the night.
On Monday morning, we set off at 8.00am (we thought) only to subsequently find that the local time was only 7.00am. We headed to Ayagoz so that Klaus could change money at a bank and I could take care of a hotel booking online (in an internet cafe). What we thought was 9,30am was only 8.30am, so we had to hang around for a half-hour until the banks and businesses opened. Shortly after leaving Ayagoz, and still within 24 hours of our arrival in Kazakhstan, we were stopped at the third consecutive police checkpoint (a 100% record that we were hoping would be broken soon). This time around, we didn’t get the polite and professional officer. This one got my vote as “Dick of the Week”!
Having pulled us over and asked for my passport, he said he needed both of us to go to the office with him. Fair enough! I was getting my pouch with vehicle documents from the car when Officer Dick asked Klaus to open the rear door. By the time I got there, he was asking to see various items. The first things he wanted to see were the two bags of BBQ charcoal. Having been shown the bags, he wasn’t content. He gestured that he wanted the bag to be ripped open wider, so that he could see inside. Instead, I tipped the bag and shook the contents, so that he could see the charcoal. This was enough for me to realise he was just being a dick! Next, he wanted to see the contents of a blue duffel (toilet paper and kitchen rolls). After that, the ominous bright orange holdall (a hand winch and recovery gear). Then he wanted to know what the green oval disc bag was (the tent). He unzipped part of it and was satisfied. Then we moved to one of the side doors. He wanted to see the contents of a khaki holdall (my tool bag). Then the blue plastic Draper tool kit (tools, of course). Then the plastic shopping bag (containing dirty coveralls). Then we moved to the opposite side where he wanted to see inside the fridge and then inside the medical and emergency grab-bag. All of this was done by pointing and grunting – and then waving me off once he didn’t find anything incriminating. This process took at least 15-minutes without any indication of what he was actually looking for. Having not found anything, we then accompanied him to the ‘office’ where his colleague recorded vehicle details from the V5 document and told us we could go. To say that this officer pissed me off is an understatement! His actions undid the positive impressions given by his colleagues the day before, and delayed our journey by 30 minutes.
For most of the day’s driving, the road conditions were bad and the scenery was uninspiring. We decided to press on and cover as much mileage as we could. In the end, we drove a total of 397 miles (638 km) from our camping spot (north of Ayagoz) to the town of Taldy-Kurgan. The distance from he border to Taldy-Kurgan, that we had planned to take three days had been covered in two.
As we got closer to Taldy-Kugan, the roads did improve slightly and so did the scenery.
As luck would have it, the Garmin took us to the centre of the town and there, right in from of us, was the Grand Au Cep Hotel. It looked very ‘high-end’ from the outside and in the lobby, but we found that a twin room was only $44 US, so we checked in. Quite a nice hotel with free wifi available on the lower floor (lobby and bar area).
On the down-side, the entire town is without hot water due to ongoing work with the central system. However, after two days of camping, a cold shower was way better than no shower! The beds are also as hard as a rock.
We are now a day ahead of schedule. Tomorrow, we will either head to Almaty a day early, or we will spend a day/night in a nearby national park. We’ll decide tomorrow.