Barnaul (Russia) to Almaty (Kazakhstan)
Updated: Sep 6, 2019
After a few days enjoying the warmth and sun in the surprisingly lovely little Russian city of Barnaul, it was finally time to head onwards for Kazakhstan. Again I opted for a smaller and more remote border crossing in the hope that it would be relatively quieter and quicker, and it was. No repeat of the trouble described in my previous post at the Russian checkpoint near Tashanta, and no two hour searches of the Pajero, as occurred when we departed Russia for Mongolia back in June.
Our initial impressions of Kazakhstan people were greatly assisted by our stopping at a tiny car parts shop in the border region town of Shemonaikha. I just wanted to pick up some packs of oil to do an engine service, but it turned into a very welcoming and enjoyable encounter. They helped us out with a number of things, including getting vehicle insurance organised on a Sunday, when insurance offices were closed - a local man was called down to the car parts store to do the insurance paperwork there! We received gifts of sumptuous melons and the local journalist from the little town's gazette arrived to interview us and take some photos. She said she'd never seen a vehicle fitted out like the Pajero before and it was clear she viewed our overland journey as being highly unusual. I would have thought other foreign overland vehicles would pass this way; perhaps most cross at the bigger border with Russia further to the west and don't come through Shemonaikha.
(FYI - mostly when I describe someone as saying something, I really mean the Google Translate app says they're saying something).
Since this is an on-road section of our trip we thought we'd knock over the 1,200 kilometre stretch to Almaty in just a couple of days - we were wrong! These are the worst roads we've ever encountered - worse than many off-road routes in Mongolia! How can 'on-road' possibly be worse than 'off-road'?! The road often resembled a 4wd track with a thick blanket of asphalt poured over the top. It was badly rutted and in places there were more potholes than actual road surface. The speed limit was 90km/hr, but you could barely sustain 50 to 70km/hr on such surfaces, even with tough 4wd suspension. I pity the reputedly corrupt local police - they'd really struggle to pretend you could possibly have been speeding here! In the end the drive to Almaty took four (driving) days; twice as long as originally envisaged. We saw considerable road work efforts along the way, so in the not too distant future this road will actually be all new and very good.
Is there a beach around here?
Along the way we ended up spending three nights camped at the edge of a clear and warm lake in a sandy forest. The days were hot, the skies were blue, and after being constantly on the move through Mongolia we just felt like having a little break in a great spot like this. The sandy tracks were so deep with soft sand that it very much gave the impression of being a coastal forest area near a beach, but of course the reality is that we are deep within Central Asia, in vast and landlocked Kazakhstan. The nearest coastal beach is thousands of miles from here! I rescued a local couple while we were stopped here too; they had bogged their relatively new Toyota Prado Landcruiser in the deep sand... at least it wasn't another Prius!
I cannot skip over this. The melons here are incredible and abundant. Watermelons, rock melons and various other kinds of melons I don't know the name of are to be seen everywhere. Sold along the roadside, at local markets and in supermarkets. We saw the same through southern Russia too. All these melons, which can be huge, are such a treat in the heat of the summer here. Those that we bought weighed between 4 to 10kg and would cost around $15 to $30 each back home in New Zealand, but here they typically sell for just $1! Some of the bigger melons we saw would likely have topped 20kg!
Actually, Kazakhstan's low prices across the board are benefiting our budget presently. If groceries cost even half what we pay back home in NZ that would be very welcome, but here we're actually shopping for around 1/5th to 1/4 NZ food prices. Quality diesel costs equivalent to NZ 75 cents per litre (about half NZ prices).
Now that we're in a new country we've had to relearn how and where locals get water. We thought we had it sussed when we discovered roadside wells in one village, as pictured above left, but trying to repeat this in another village further on we discovered all those houses had been upgraded to running water and the roadside wells were dismantled. Luckily for us, a local woman spotted us trying one of the dismantled wells and invited us to her home to fill the Pajero's tank - above right photo. She kindly gave us a couple of melons from her own garden too; more melons - they're everywhere! So far we've only encountered friendly and helpful Kazakhstan people.
Almaty is a stunning city. It's green, cultured and so beautiful in the hot and sunny Kazakhstan summer. Directly behind the city are some rugged and rocky mountains that look like they belong to Austria or Switzerland. It's 30+ degrees in the city, which can make these snow capped mountains appear out of place. However, this is Central Asia and we're on the doorstep of a region that is home to some truly serious mountains. In the coming weeks we'll be navigating mountains that will begin to make New Zealand's Mount Cook look like a hill.
I won't attempt to describe everything we've done in Almaty and will instead let the photos tell the story. In the following photo set you'll see a massive monument of a fierce looking soldier; possibly the most impressive wartime memorial I've seen. Some photos near the end come from Almaty's 'Green Bazaar' - don't miss the lovely displays of dried fruits and nuts. The market also contained meat, fish and fruit & vegetable sections. The photos of the lake were taken in the mountains directly behind the city.
The 'Auto-Parts Market' Guide
When visiting a market in certain locations, and being recognised as foreign, it is not uncommon for a stranger to emerge from nowhere and announce that they will be your guide. We've experienced this in Morocco previously, so I was not overly alarmed when within minutes of arriving at an 'auto parts' market in Almaty I had a guide attaching himself to me. Although he approached me far from where I had parked the Pajero, he indicated that he knew I had a Pajero, which suggested I had been observed for at least a short while. Normally, I would quickly shake my un-requested guide off. For the less seasoned traveller, please note this isn't easily accomplished, as this would be akin to asking a crocodile to kindly let go of your leg. However, on this occasion I decided to just go with it. I didn't speak the local language (same as every other country on our Central Asia itinerary!) and I could use the help - if he could potentially help me find what I was looking for. And what was I looking for at an auto parts market... first of all what is an auto parts market?!
I'd actually never seen anything quite like this rough and ready auto parts market before. In one area 'cuts'of cars (i.e. a front or rear section) were on display like parts of an animal at the meat market. For instance, here you could point at the power steering pump and someone would immediately set about getting that out. Other sections of the market specialised in engines or gearboxes - or had someone offering services such as tinting windows, changing oil, or doing anything else car related you could possibly think of. This was certainly no Repco (or other modern auto parts store) - even my new 'guide' cautioned me that my car windows had better be up and the doors locked, as he motioned for me to follow him in the direction of the tyres section at the far end of the market. Yes, tyres was what I was there for. I shouldn't have needed tyres, as I only fit the best tyres in advance of a trip like this. However, one tyre had suffered a highly unusual catastrophic failure while we were in Almaty - the whole bead of the tyre separated and could have caused a nasty accident had I not reacted quickly.
Down at the tyres end of the market my guide tried hard to sell me whatever was there, which wasn't what I wanted. These guides take their cut from any transaction that occurs in their presence. I'm picky about things like tyres. It's a fine line to walk - on the one hand I knew that realistically I must choose from what is available in Kazakhstan, but equally I must buy something I know will be up to the task. We're back out into the desert next up on our journey, solo again, and must have exceptionally strong and high quality tyres beneath the 3 tonne modified Pajero - anything less is asking for trouble.
My guide and I conversed via Google Translate. Ordinarily I type and translate, but my guide preferred to put my phone into voice conversation mode. This turned out to be very entertaining when he received a phone call. At first I thought Google Translate was playing up, as it displayed a pretty serious swear word! I quickly realised the app was translating my guide's phone call, which he was having openly and loudly right next to me because he knew I couldn't understand a word he was saying. According to Google Translate, my guide was telling his caller that he had an 'American' down at the bazaar and was about to close the deal. He had referred to me as an American when he found me, and though I had corrected him it seems I was still an American in his eyes. In these situations the pressure put on you to buy what you don't want can be high. I held my ground and did not buy what was being offered, which I've since confirmed (not surprisingly) was being offered at a rather inflated price; a price for 'Americans' perhaps.
Coming up next
I managed to find a quality set of Japanese made 4wd tyres locally, so our pleasant city break in lovely Almaty is at its end. We feel it's time to get the new tyres dirty and make progress towards Kyrgyzstan. Our on/off road route over the next week or so will take us out into a desert renowned for its other worldly landscapes and unusual wildlife, through Kazakhstan's own version of America's Grand Canyon, and finally to stunning mountain lakes set amidst forests at an elevation of 2,000 metres. One lake contains a 'sunken forest'. These starkly contrasting landscapes should be a recipe for producing some stunning images - and possibly drone footage.
I have also now plotted in detail some of the dramatic routes we will follow into remote parts of Kyrgyzstan, near the border with China. These areas are at between 3,000 and 4,000 metres altitude and I anticipate some difficult 4wding will be required... but when you see the images that will be added to this web blog in the coming weeks, I'm confident no one will wonder why we go to so much effort to access these remote areas.