21st April – 1st May
Spring – at last
If the Mongolia’s roads and weather nearly broke us, then Russia dusted us down and told us it would all be alright again.
The Mongolian customs officials at the border crossing are brusque and exacting, searching the entire car and taking hours over the paperwork. By contrast, the Russian officials are all smiles, amazingly efficient and welcoming – unlikely praise for this country!
After a three and a half hours, we’re rejoicing in a land of clement weather, decent infrastructure and meat you can cut with a fork…
After recording -8°C this morning in Mongolia, by lunchtime its 21°C – an incredible change given we’ve only gone 150km. The Russian Altai is supposedly one of the most beautiful parts of this vast country. Crossing from the relative barrenness of Mongolia at this time of year, it’s easy to see why: we’re suddenly in a land of lush green valleys, alpine forests, clear rivers, rolling hills and towering snow-capped peaks.
Camping is definitely the order of the day; we stop in a picturesque valley, hidden from the main road by a shallow (and still quite icy) river and a copse of pine trees. The farmer is nearby; he produces a glittering, gold-teeth studded smile as we ask if we can camp on his land.
It’s blissful – at 6pm we enjoy a beer, sitting outside wearing jeans and light jumpers – and not an Arctic jacket in sight!
After a thoroughly relaxing morning we head north-east towards Gorno-Altaisk where we need to go through Russia’s aggravating tourist registration process, as we’re not staying in hotels. Ironically, we end up staying in a guesthouse as the registratzia office is so hard to find that we haven’t managed to register ourselves by nightfall.
We’re pleased we got our camping fix in. Having finally registered the next morning in Gorno (three hour process) we head north-east towards Bisk and Barnaul, only to discover that the best of the Altai region is now behind us – the land gets flatter, more agricultural and more populous – which also means there’s a tenfold increase in the number of militzia patrolling the roads.
We tried to get insurance at the Russian border, but the guy who was arranged to supply us with our Russian green card never materialised – and it’s not an area that’s exactly littered with insurance outlets. Ironically in European Russia, where we had valid Russian insurance, no-one ever asked for it. Here, it’s all they want to see…
We get pulled for the first time entering Bisk, by three cheerful young militzia officers. We play the friendly dumb non-Russian-speaking tourist game, showing them driving licences, passports, car paperwork, everything but the green card that they’re after.
We know full well what they’re after, but there’s no way we’ll help them. They go so far as to produce their own green card, so we produce our old (green) British MOT certificate … They smile in exasperation and ask Charlie to hop into their car. Now is the opportune moment to produce a packet of Chinese cigarettes and hand them round…
These are a bone fide novelty and the chief officer asks if he can keep the packet. “Of course” replies Charlie, handing it over. Amazingly, it’s an actual swap, with half a packet of Russian cigarettes in return! We play the same game with UK and Euro coins we have lying around, getting a handful of roubles in exchange. They’re perfectly happy with this and we depart; handshakes and smiles all round.
Just as we’re congratulating ourselves on these clever new tactics (and pondering if we’ve got any other Chinese fags left) we’re pulled again on the other side of Bisk, just 15 minutes later…
This time the officers are older, and our ignorant disguise is blown by an English-speaking Kazakh in the police kiosk who fluently translates the police officer’s request… No hiding this time, and our lack of insurance costs us 500 roubles (£11) in the top drawer.
Bolting for the border
Our brief love affair with Russia is turning rather sour by now, and as the mountains peter out and the fields become increasingly drab, we decide there’s nothing for it but to floor it to the border, 300km south of Barnaul. It’s now 4pm on a Friday afternoon so there’s little chance of finding an open insurance shop anyway.
We run the militzia gauntlet, driving into the evening in the hope that they’ll have buggered off home for the weekend. It works – most of them have and the few we see are luckily looking the other way, and we arrive at Veseloyarsk, the tiny remote border town tired but relieved and our wallet unscathed.
Understanding Russian genetics
We spend the night camped outside the town’s only café. There’s a wedding party being prepared inside – dozens of Russian girls affixing tatty, recycled congratulatory posters to the walls, and blowing up heart shaped balloons.
It’s a good example of the female Russian genes at work – there are a few 20-something stick-thin blondes and brunettes (all wearing the obligatory spray-on jeans and three inch stiletto boots), a handful of rotund and slightly hairy babushkas and – a rare sight in Russia – one girl in that momentary phase between Barbie doll and Barbie pensioner, who looks just ordinarily middle-aged and slightly overweight.
There’s evidently nowhere else in town to celebrate a wedding, or no other decorations, for that matter. Their identikit shaven-headed boyfriends look on uninterestedly, occasionally sniggering over little private jokes as the girls do all the work
We rise early, knowing this is a potentially arduous border crossing. Sure enough, it is. We get to the windswept, remote and decrepit border post at 8.30am; there’s a line of seven cars in front of us and the barrier to the border area is still shut – this one opens when it feels like it.
Today it opens at 10am, but even then the only thing that crosses the barbed wire and barriers is the ubiquitous tumbleweed, blown southwards to Kazakhstan without the faintest concern for national boundaries.
Eventually this little trickle of cars is allowed to start making its way through the system – two at a time. We finally enter the customs building at 11am, only to meet the world’s most officious customs bureauphile, who insists we re-write our customs declarations forms from the Mongolian border no fewer than three times, as tiny details are filled incorrectly…
Finally, we’re through by 12.30pm. The Kazakh side is comparatively friendly and straightforward, a mere 45 minutes, including getting insurance and our roubles changed for Kazakh tenge!
There’s not much too hold us in northern Kazakhstan. Semey is a pretty enough city with some of Kazakhstan’s more appealing architecture, but it (and the surrounding area) is scarred by decades of Soviet nuclear testing in the nearby Semey-Palatinsk Polygon.
Naturally, residents were given little or no warning for most of the 456 nuclear explosions that were carried out here, which were only halted in 1991 after huge public protests, just before the USSR’s disintegration. Today, residents are still afflicted with high rates of cancer, birth defects and a low life expectancy – just another part of Kazakhstan irreparably damaged by the Soviets.
Speeding onto civilisation
We’re lucky enough to have a lovely contact in Almaty – Camila Davies, who has invited us to stay for some much needed R&R and civilization. The thought of comfy beds, home comforts, hot showers and a washing machine (our first since Beijing!) spurs us on, and we cover the 1,200km or so to Almaty in two days, stopping to camp out on the steppe for the night in between.
The roads in eastern Kazakhstan are better than those we found last year in the west but still not great - nonetheless, we’d choose these heavily pot-holed, gravel and antique tarmac roads any day of the week over the muck that’s dished up in Mongolia.
Camila is an extraordinary person; a living whirlwind and one of life’s genuine philanthropists, working tirelessly for numerous good causes in Kazakhstan. She gives us a wonderful welcome and having got the car unloaded, it’s beer o’clock. Soon after beer o’clock finishes it’s Georgian wine o’clock. Several bottles and much gossiping later, its 1am and definitely sleep o’clock – we drove 520 miles in 11½ hours today.
After a relaxed morning there’s time for some cursory sightseeing (notably, the extraordinarily colourful and robust wooden cathedral, virtually the only building in Almaty to withstand the 1911 earthquake), and some delicious shashlik for lunch – something we’ve missed in the rest of Asia!
Camila organises a dinner party for us, and although it’s a Monday it’s still a lively, boozy affair. There’s Guy and Clare, entertaining and well-travelled financial journalists, Benjamin, an erudite financial lawyer who’s lived in numerous cities throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus, Siri, a Danish oil drilling engineer, Mariam, a lively Pakistani financial analyst, and Ainur, a cultured and softly spoken Kazakh girl working as a business analyst.
As is often the case at dinner parties in this part of the world, everyone has interesting stories to tell, though typically as the booze flows they become more memorable yet harder to recall in the morning…
This sort of pattern continues for the rest of the week – our excuse is that there’s a crack in our diesel tank that takes three days to fix. Numerous parts of our suspension got mangled in Mongolia too and being in the ‘Land of the Land Cruiser’, now is a good time to replace them.
We finally, reluctantly, leave Almaty and head east towards the mighty Charyn Canyon, arguably Kazakhstan’s greatest natural wonder. Although not as big as the Grand Canyon, it’s still an awe-inspiring sight; a 300 metre deep, giant fissure in the otherwise featureless steppe. Its orange-red multi-coloured striations offset the dark green of the surrounding steppe and the icy-blue mountains in the distance. Plus, we have the place to ourselves.
The Charyn River, full of sediment-heavy spring melt-water, thunders through the bottom at high speed. We park up above the Canyon and cook our supper overlooking the ravine – possibly one of our most dramatic camping spots yet.
It’s a perfect place to spend a couple of days, walking, taking in the views, and chatting to the Almaty weekenders who arrive in their droves for picnics the following day.
From canyon to coup?
From here, it’s on to Kyrgyzstan, where we’re assured by ‘Our Man in Bishkek’ that the current situation is relatively calm, despite the violent coup three weeks ago. The borders are unreliable though, and Charyn lies near the officially closed border at Karkara. Nevertheless, it’s only an hour and a half away, so it’s worth a try…