In Asia

Nur-Sultan, 20.06.2019

The moment the Mini rolled out of the mountainous Urals the change in Landscape became immediately noticeable. The flat plains were a lot drier, the trees started to disappear. The heat in the sunshine helped probably, but the memories of my time in Central Asia in 2013 came up fast. The faces on the people around started to change, more Asian. In all fairness already in Ufa this was the case, but after the Urals driving east it persisted for a few hours. After Magnitogorsk I had to drive north again, and the villages and faces changed back to more European. It was a “montaña rusa” (rollercoaster) around here with the changes in landscape and faces. The roads started to deteriorate, patchwork of tar, potholes that made everything in the Mini fly. I hit my head against the roof of the Mini for the first time. As the sun started to go down for the day, the last two hours of sunlight are always the most beautiful ones, the best light for pictures. I could have stopped every five minutes, but had to drive on as the hotel for the night was still far away in Kurgan. As I kept driving and shaking, the wideness of the land and sky amazed me. A few months back I got asked what fascinated me so much of the Far East in 2013. I said “the sky, the wideness”. Here it was right ahead of me. I was driving under a range of clouds, escaping to a part of the sky that was unclouded, where the sun kept shining.

The next morning before taking off I had breakfast in the very basic hotel. I got out my few words of Serbo-Croatian I had learned many years back, and managed to get a great breakfast with everything I wanted. The lady in the kitchen laughed at my strange accent, but understood everything. From former Yugoslavia to Poland to Russia, there are so many similar words in the Slavic languages, so many assimilations of German and French words, plus a lot of Latin words in the medical sector that I understand a lot around here without speaking the language. After now two weeks of reading roadsigns, shop signs and product stickers I can read the Cyrillic slowly and guess pronounce 80% of it correctly. That helped for example understand in the supermarket in the morning that none of the stuff I wanted to buy was available, and I had to find another one. But before that, I took a walk though this frontier town. A few blocks away was the obligatory eternal flame. The obligatory tank I had already passed at the town entrance the night before. But before the flame were metal plaques bearing the names of what I guessed were the WWII soldiers from the city or area that died. A quick math resulted in about 40.000 names. Not far away was the home of a Dekabrist, in a park next door is a memorial to commissars murdered by White soldiers in 1918, some blocks further, on Ul. Sovietska, is a monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky. It seemed the Soviet Union has never ended and is still in full swing here. Several gigantic hammer and sickel monuments in various towns seemed to confirm that, as did along the entire journey the tons of Soviet insignia on buildings and cars.

40.000 names.
Victims or perpetrators?
Iron Felix.
A showcase of local specialities.

The road to the border with Kazakhstan was about 140km away. On the Russian side in about 50 mins I had passed border control and customs check. The road towards the Kazakh checks gave me an amuse-geule of what would expect me as the main course after the border: mud tracks off a road that is being constructed, decorated with deep truck or tactor grooves, littered with stones that could cut a car tyre easily from the side. The Kazakh border station was also a construction site. Waiting for my turn in a line of cars I scrubbed layers of dead insects off my front windshield. I passed the friendly passport and customs controls in under 20 minutes. The soldiers wore fatigues that resembled those of the US army, English translations appeared on signs, and the border staff even spoke a few words. As I rolled out of the border station, immediately a group of older men in military fatigues without insignia, big bellies and grey hair surrounded my car. “Green Card. Insurance. Where are you from.” I knew they wanted to rip me off. I checked my Insurance’s Green Card and indeed it didn’t cover Kazakhstan. I tried to talk to them in English to push back a bit, and see if they would drop the ball. A young blond girl got called to the scene, and started to translate. I needed to buy an insurance for the Mini. I knew the process from 2013, so I went to one of the shops selling it with her. The guys were pretty not amused that the girl stole the customer. But she was very friendly, got straight to the point (the insurance), calculated the rate for 2 weeks, 1 and 2 months based on my car’s age and a table she had, answered all my questions and even offered me a coffee while she filled out the paperwork. 55 EUR and 20 minutes later I was insured for the coming tow months and as many visits to the country as I wanted. Outside it was hot and dusty, and as I checked Instagram while waiting many pics from Italian beaches, dotted with bikinis and boats came up. I was on the verge of disconnecting from a few people…

Welcome to KZ.

The first hour after the border was a mix of short/fast perfect new pieces of road and long/slow pieces as described above. For a moment I thought that if this was to continue that way, I could turn around immediately and drive back to Europe as the Mini and my back would probably go KO in a few days. Also, there were police cars along the way all the time, checking on the cars passing by. But, as so often on this journey, I took a deep breath and went on. At Petropavl, the road got better, and as I exited town, on a red light with no other cars around I slowly rolled onto the right side on the last meters. The traffic offered the option to go straight (where I wanted to go) or left, and I wanted to vacate the left lane. On the right side of the street was a brown building with big golden-brown windows. As the light turned green I started going, but a policeman in those hot Soviet, synthetic uniforms with the big round hats signalled me to stop on the side. “Hello.” “Dokumente, passport.” He said something in Russian. I told him I only spoke English. He signalled me to come inside with him and my passport in his hands. Inside the main room was another policeman, and they were finishing a fine for a local man that looked a bit scared. Then it was my turn. “Sit.” “No thanks, I’ve been sitting all day. What’s the problem?” They started to play with video recordings on a screen. I was wondering where they could have caught me speeding somewhere in town, until I realised the camera was just outside. Then they showed me the recording of how I rolled onto the right lane in front of the red light, at 5-10km/h. “Yes, I went to the right to make space for those people that wanted to turn left. I had to go straight. What is the problem?” The second police guy took out Google translate on his phone. “You drove over the straight line and broke the law.” I looked at the screen. There was a dotted line until the very end of the red light, with about 3m of straight line. The Mini rolled over a piece of dotted and a piece of straight line. I laughed! In English I told him loudly “OK I know what you want, but that’s not working with me. Give me my passport immediately and I go. You know this is not an infraction.” Visibly irritated by my reaction, he pointed to the screen, then got out Google translate again. “You violated out traffic laws, it’s clear what line you drove over. Be more careful.” Then he gave me back my passport.

I burst into laughs in the car. But it was a good wake up call. In many ex-Soviet countries the police is still there to intimidate people, extort money, and constantly check on drivers, to impose their authority. I still remember my first encounter on a night in Azerbaijan, and the hefty fine I paid at the time. And the cops in Armenia that also wanted to tell me I had crossed a non-existing line on a road. The police also in Kazakhstan is everywhere on the road. The police buildings at town entrances, the cars parked on the side of the road. The patrols on the road. In Russia there were tons of trashed cars parked on the side of the road, sometimes hidden in the trees or bushes, that operate speed cameras everywhere. Here the police cars were newer, and the officers all in uniform and with these huge round hats.

Lake Burabay.
Lake Burabay.

The road got better soon after. A few times I passed Kazakh cowboys on horses getting their cattle across the street. Time to go to sleep I guessed. For hours I drove on a wonderful motorway, 3 lanes per side, little traffic. The motorways in Europe would have looked pale compared to this one. The land was flat all around, with the occasional factory or mine on the horizon. As the sun started to go down for the day, I left the motorway at Burabay, as I had a pin on my map for a national park. From the distance I had seen a sudden mountain, and a short dive later the few cars ahead of me stopped at a gate. I paid 50 RUB as I had no Kazakh Tengge, and entered a thick dark forest right after the gate. There was nobody around and the drive though the forest was mysterious somehow. The air was cool, no people around but hiking trails were visible. I gained quite some elevation. At a crossroads, I turned left, and suddenly saw some mountains to my left that looked as if some giant would have put stones on each other to form a perfectly shaped mountaintop. A few hikers were on their way down. To the right a lake appeared, the water completely calm, a few boats on it and with a little island not far from the shore. This place had a special feeling to it, mysterious, alpine, secluded, somehow like a sanctuary in this huge flat land. Lake and mountains seemed as if somebody had hammered a hole in the ground on one side and put the stones on the other, then planted tall pines on them. The two hotels in the forest were still in construction and not yet accepting guests. When the road got flatter, along the side of the lake, the town of Burabay offered lots of cheap hotels, disco bars with loud music, and the smell of the Shashlik grill smoking on the roadside filled the air. Inside I was fighting, should I call the very fancy hotel in Nur-Sultan and tell them I’d arrive a day later and give this place a shot tonight? Passing a particularly big disco bar, with the karaoke action on the inside, I decided to drive on. For a moment, seeing the faces around me, the all-night Mongol party in my roadside hotel flashed in front of me. Back to the motorway, I entered a toll gate with no ticket, and then a race toward the capital started. It started to get dark, and my windshield was full of flies again. I had washed in one more time to spic span cleanliness at a gas station earlier, but here there was no chance. The insect-density became so strong that I had difficulties seeing the road in front of me, especially when other cars’ lights were behind me. There was a simple solution to this problem: accelerate and drive alone in the dark, with the flood lights on. Hours passed, and finally the toll gate arrived. The contactless credit card sensor was defect, I had to pay at the toll gate. From there on it was another 45 mins to find the road downtown. As I couldn’t see much through the windshield, I didn’t find the official entrance to the St. Regis. I parked at the service entrance, and somehow sneaked in through the back door. The staff was very surprised to suddenly see me walking around a corner, my two bags in hand, unshaved and exhausted. “Welcome Mr. Hageney. Was your journey OK?”

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