The end of the world as we know it (August 5, 2011)

By Kara Van Malssen

The morning was full of great anticipation amongst all 20 or so Ralliers who had enjoyed a comfort-filled stay at Astrakhan’s Park Inn by Radisson: today was the day we would enter Kazakhstan. I had read in a travel blog written by a bicyclist I believe that this border was sort of the final frontier, the edge of the earth. This northwestern corner of the Caspian Sea was where we’d leave Russia (and Europe) and enter Kazakhstan (and Central Asia). We had no idea what to expect in terms of the people, available resources, food, fuel, road quality, language, or much of anything for that matter. This part of Kazakhstan, the world’s 9th largest county (and largest landlocked) was very far from the major metropolitan areas in the east, and therefore our Lonely Planet Central Asia had little to say about the region.


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As everyone prepared to head out that morning and attempt to make it to Atyrau, the nearest city in Kazakhstan, our team realized we had to stay behind to take care of a paperwork issue. James had lost the immigration card he was given entering the country (most likely dropped at one of the many ubiquitous police check points we had passed), which our hotel informed us was obligatory to surrender upon exiting the country, and it was critical that he get a replacement. The nice receptionist had ordered for one to be sent to the hotel, but it wouldn’t arrive until noon. Nervous about being behind schedule (our teammate Jamie had a plane to catch in Tashkent in just 7 days) but even more nervous about being detained at the border or being turned away, we decided to wait. As luck would have it, an Aussie team who we had met the night before also had to stay until about that time to wait for a DHL package to arrive. And a British couple was going to wait with them. Our three teams decided to bid farewell to the other 6 or so cars and head to the border together in the afternoon.

As serendipity would have it, we ended up sticking together for the remaining 4 weeks, all the way to the finish line in Ulaanbaatar. The Cross Continental Dumpling Tour (Miki, Martin, and Nat) and Neither Tried Nor Tested (Georgia and Rich) were our new family.

We made it to the border by about 2pm that afternoon after getting lost a few times on the poorly marked back roads that lead us there. We had all heard of the legendary 17 hour border crossings once you entered Central Asia, and we didn’t hold our breath that this one would be quick. To our surprise, we were through the Russian side in less than an hour, and then double surprise, the Kazakh side only took an hour and a half! The only real hold up was when the the customs officer asked Rich what kind of car he was in. The exchange went something like this:

Officer: What make of car are you in?

Rich: It’s a Perodua

Officer: A what?

Rich: A Perodua

Officer: No, the car, what kind of car?

Rich: A Perodua

Officer: The car! What make?

Rich: It’s a Perodua. It’s a Malaysian car.

Officer: What?

Rich: Per-ou-du-a. Perouda.

The rest of us were trying not to dissolve into fits of laughter and potentially offend the very stocky Kazakh officer. It remained a classic joke amongst our group for the rest of the trip.

Shortly after we were on our way with about 3 hours of daylight left. The landscape became dry, the villages few and far between, and there were no petrol stations. We saw our first camels.

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The first 30 miles or so were very slow going on the potholed, bumpy roads, but eventually we got up to about 52 mph, which would turn out to be our maximum for the coming weeks. During a sketchy repair job in the Ukraine, the Perodua’s rear springs were replaced with those of a Volkswagon Golf, which were too big, and the poor little car fishtailed uncontrollably if it went any faster. Our pace was set.

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As the sun began to set, another Rally car joined us, and we all decided it was time to find camp. We ended up going down a narrow side road and pulling into the sand dunes near a necropolis. It seemed as good as any, was off the road and out of earshot and eyesight. And there was wood! Now that we were in the desert, this was a rare commodity (it turned out to be from the fence surrounding the cemetery. We still hope we didn’t upset the dead too much). We got the fire going just as swarms of vampiric mosquitos starting bombarding us. Out came the DEET, and with the smoke of the fire we managed to enjoy the evening. James strummed a few tunes on the guitar with Jamie on the violin, and we shared some of our homemade Romanian whiskey over stories of battling Ukrainian motorways. The end of the world wasn’t so bad.

First night in Kazakstan! Camping near a necropolis, fighting off the mozzies.

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The necropolis, just over the dunes.

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