Kazakhstan Part II – Almaty to Semey (August 18-20, 2011)

By James Power

We didn’t have nearly enough time in Kyrgyzstan, and I think we all agree that of all the places we passed through, it’s the first place we would go back to.  Now, to get to Mongolia we had to cut north through eastern Kazakhstan and east across southern Siberia.  We had to do it fast too because one of the Aussies in our convoy was racing to cross the Mongolian border before his Russian visa expired.

We entered Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan early in the evening and had about 200 km to drive to get to Almaty, the commerce hub of Central Asia. In general, we tried as much as possible to avoid driving at night, but we didn’t have much choice here.  The roads were good, but single lane and poorly marked with a lot of aggressive passing.  It was stressful, but we finally made it to a comfortable, if strange, motel at around midnight.

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We were up early the next morning in search of cash and food.  We found both at a fancy, air conditioned mall where we  grabbed some greasy fast food and pick n’ mix, then got on the road early in the afternoon.  Almaty, like a lot of cities we passed through, was like quicksand where traffic and creature comforts sucked away whatever early momentum we thought we had.

We finally escaped and made good time through the vast, empty countryside on good Kazakh roads.  We stopped for a snack at a busy food stand selling fantastic mutton-filled pastries, kurut (sour dried-yogurt balls) and kumiz, the fermented mare’s milk we struggled to keep down in Kyrgyzstan.  Everyone seemed to be sipping on bowls of the stuff here, so we decided to give it another shot.  It turns out that if the kumiz is really fresh, it’s pretty good, basically a creamy yogurt drink.

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As evening approached, our convoy met up with another convoy that was slightly ahead of us, and we found a hidden spot to camp on the banks of a creek a few hundred yards off the road.  It seemed like a great find, and we had plenty of time to set up, cook some dinner and relax.  We got to bed early knowing that we had a mammoth drive ahead of us the next day.  I woke up few hours later to an electrical wind and sand storm that looked and sounded like the end times from the confines of my flimsy tent, whose stakes had a precarious hold in the stony ground.  The wind tore them loose a few minutes later, and the tent collapsed around me.  I crawled out groggy and grumpy and dragged my sleeping bag to the car, where I managed to sleep until the sun came up a couple of hours later.   When I climbed back down to the creek, I learned that my tent had come completely loose and blown away.  Luckily someone noticed and rescued it so I wasn’t stuck sleeping in the car the rest of the trip.

The storm had us up and on the road early, and we managed to log the nearly 500 miles to Semey, near the Russian border.  As we drove through the middle of nowhere, approaching the grey, desolate, post-Soviet town of Ayagoz, we kept seeing roadside vendors holding what appeared to be big flat dead fish.  We stopped at one to see what it was all about and got ourselves a big flat dried fish to share. Not bad.

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The roads were awful over the last 60 miles to Semey and we finally got there an hour or so after sunset, found the fanciest hotel in town and spent the evening drinking beer and watching judo at a tavern down the street.  It was our last night in Central Asia and we spent it in style.

Sounds of the Tavern in Semey

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