There in the vast steppe, flooded with sunlight, he could see the black tents of the nomads, like dots in the distance. There was freedom…there time itself seemed to stand still as though the age
of Abraham and his flocks had not passed.
We crossed the Caspian Sea in an ancient ex-Soviet cargo ship, from Baku in Azerbaijan, headed towards Aktau, in the world’s largest landlocked country, Kazakhstan. We had a chance to sit back and relax for a change. Having left London almost a month back we were part of 200 teams taking part in the 5th annual Mongol Rally, chasing the sunrise towards Ulan Bataar in Mongolia, all in the name of raising stacks of cash for various deserving charities. My team mate Olly and I had adopted the team name the Optimistic Fools, as we had sidelined the obvious choice of 4×4 vehicles in favor of a rusting 1971 sky blue Renault 4 called Irene who had spent the past decade or so oxidizing in a Guernsey barn.
The ferry to Aktau
We had read countless horror stories of the elusive ferry to Aktau on the internet and had prepared ourselves for the worst; however as we lay down on our simple bunks, shot vodka whilst playing backgammon with our fellow passengers and strolled around the deck for the 28-hour crossing, it became an adventure in itself. Upon disembarkation at 4am we learnt that communist bureaucracy was still alive and well in the last former USSR republic to declare independence, as stamp after stamp was sought to enable us to enter the country.
The next day, sixteen hours after docking, having twiddled our thumbs almost into knots the port gates opened, the friendly guards waved us goodbye and we were free. They say that first impressions last, however on pulling into a nearby petrol station we immediately warmed to Kazakhstan as I was bought beer by the driver of another car and Olly had to politely decline a mother’s proposal of marriage to her beautiful daughter.
|The endless desert of western Kazakhstan|
The deserts of Kazakhstan
Striking off into the sandy desert of the Mangistau region of Kazakhstan heading north towards the city of Aqtobe the temperature rose up into the high 40s and with foolish haste, excited to be back on the road, we had not accounted for the lack of water sources along the route. As the dust penetrated our every orifice, sapping us of all moisture perspiration became a distant memory as our bodies strove to conserve every last drop of sacred water.
Suddenly out of the haze appeared a small hut with a small lady shrouded like a Saharan nomad selling large juicy watermelons. Were that relief not so etched upon my memory I would swear it were a mirage, however never before has a watermelon been ravished as hastily as that poor little fruit, revitalising us for the onward journey through the stark yet stunning landscape dotted only with dromedaries and a few wild bands of horses.
Owed to its abundant supply of oil and gas, Kazakhstan has progressed exceptionally quickly in less than two decades of independence. Although slightly controversial in the international forum this rise is, by and large, thanks to President Nazarbaev, who is loved throughout the country and is hailed as having both freed the country from the grips of the Iron curtain and unified its many ethnicities and religions. Knowing little about this colossal country we immediately fell for its convivial charm, vodka breakfasts, naked saunas with sumo wrestlers (don’t ask) and genuinely interested and affable people eager to welcome you into their homes and chew the fat.
Our inability to speak any of the many languages of our trip did not hamper our conversations with the locals, it truly is amazing how much you can get by with learning a few words, drawings and actions. For example if we wanted eggs in a restaurant we would cluck like chickens, imitate laying an egg, pick up this imaginary egg crack it on the counter top and make a sizzling noise of a frying pan. This little show of lunacy not only got us breakfast but amused and endeared us to all the locals, the only negative side of which was that more often than not it ended in our being forced to drink vodka.
|Olly and Chris letting Irene cool down in the 47°C heat of the Kazak desert|
After the scorching deserts of the south we crossed into miles and miles of cornfields stretching as far as the eye could see and then on into the cold highland steppes before descending into the Sci-Fiesq new capital city; Astana. To the consternation of many in 1994 Nazerbaev uprooted his cabinet and all public offices and moved them to his new capital formed from the swampland of the northern steppes. Today this glitzy city of shinning glass and glinting metal designed by some of the world’s foremost architects is still in the making and is soon to be home to the worlds largest tent that will house a minor city replete with streets lined with cafes, an 18 hole golf course and, of course, a sea with sandy beaches. For the first city we had visited since Istanbul and being fresh of the steppes it was all a little confusing to enter this wonder world, so after a brief tour of the rollercoaster like streets, a small crash into the back of a BMW we sped on towards Russia.
I never try to imagine my destination before I get there, as I find that reality is rarely a mirror to imagination and preconception. However for Russia I couldn’t help but envision what I believed it to be like, probably thanks to James Bond, and as we were ushered from booth 1 through to booth 4 and back to 2 before finally revisiting the blond lady in booth 1 in the small, old, cold customs house flanked by tall stern looking guards at the border near Pavlodar, it seemed my preconception wasn’t too far wrong. One thing we did learn however as the guards waved us off, was that we were entering Siberia, something our research had failed to bring to our attention and in the UK Siberia is synonymous with one thing; arctic weather. So having packed for sunny warm weather we looked out at the cold empty plains and shivered.
Mongolia, via Russia
|The lush pine forested hills of the Altai region of Siberia|
Even though on the map it looks like Kazakhstan has a boarder with Mongolia, in reality one must enter briefly through Russia across the rolling hills, through the lush grasslands and into the Switzerland like pine forests of the Altai region.
After spending the night with a group of young Russians in the city of Barnaul who invited us to the inauguration of a new club and then graffitied Irene whilst we tinkered with her failing breaks we rolled on into the hills towards Mongolia.
Shortly before reaching the border we set up camp high up along some beaten track where we thought we could rest undisturbed by vodka-pushing locals. With the fire crackling as darkness enveloped us, a mounted rider crashed into our circle and as our hearts lurched at this sudden intrusion the rider looked down at us, his horse billowing steam through its flaring nostrils. He then jumped down, ‘Altkuda‘ (where are you from) he demanded, ‘Italia’ said Olly. The man looked at him and ran his finger menacingly across Olly’s throat. He then turned to me. ‘Germania’ I said. He smiled an unsettling smile then shouted ‘Heil Hitler’ over and over dancing around like a lunatic. Our guest then proceeded to force us to drink vodka and eat some unidentifiable meat that he pulled from his bag, all the while shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ before remounting his horse and disappearing into the darkness.
Rattled to the core in Mongolia
As we rumbled into Mongolia the smooth tarmac roads of Russia quickly became a distant dream as Irene’s bones were rattled to the core on the bumpy non-existent roads leading from the border. The barren beauty of the Mongolian steppes took our breath away as for hour after hour we drove with only brawny wild horses, hairy mythical like yaks and herds of shy Bactrian camels for company. Occasionally in the distance we would see a little wisp of smoke emanating from a small white ger, the nomads itinerant homes, as we rolled across endless swathes of open pasture, throwing the useless map I had bought in London to the floor and pulling out an old compass to lead us towards the capital.
Being the most sparsely populated country in the world, it is hailed as campers paradise as there is no shortage of unfenced open land. And we certainly had been looking forward to this. However we hadn’t been looking forward to the cold that started to seep into every bone as the sun set. So in the first market we came across we made possibly the best purchases of our lives of two thick camel hair Mongol jackets preferred by the nomads of the northwest that were as snug as any we had ever worn.
|The endless sky and the cold temperatures of the Gobi desert|
Our greatest expectation of Mongolia was the size of the sky that unhindered by buildings or trees blanketed the landscape leaving us feeling even smaller than usual and as we left the mountainous steppe and crossed into the sandy swathes of the Gobi desert it grew all the more. The Gobi is the fourth largest desert in the world and also the coldest where it isn’t uncommon to see frost crowning its sandy dunes, yet being the end of the summer and clad in our long warm coats we were spared the extreme temperatures that exist here at other times of the year.
Unfortunately for Irene however nothing could spare her from the brutal rocky tracks, noted on the map as motorways, which lashed and whipped her remorselessly. We bought with us four spare tyres and four spare inner tubes which proved to be too few; and on one calamitous day we ran through 15 inner tube patches until we could repair them no more and we lay stuck. We had been beaten by the Gobi. Dejected and forlorn, our meager amount of water being rationed and no food to speak of, we pulled out our gramophone bought from England for such an occasion and listened to the crackling evocative sounds of the Weimar republic.
Irene is dead, long live Irene
As evening approached a cloud of dust appeared on the horizon and a large rumbling truck came into view. After hailing them down and the initial pleasantries that are custom when two crazy foreigners in a bizarre looking car and a 1950s gramophone stop you in the middle of a desert, we offered them, with great sorrow, our trusty little Irene in exchange for a lift into the capital (where we were to catch our flight back home a day later). Jumping for joy and their assumptions of our insanity confirmed, they readily accepted, loaded us and our meager belongings into the truck, sprayed us with air freshener – we really stank – and sped off watching Irene disappear in the rear view mirror to be collected later by her new owners.
The next evening whilst strolling around Ulan Bator we came across the finish line of the rally. So moping across in search of our free beer we toasted the heroine that had bought us here, the sturdy Irene and mused where her new life, as a proxy camel, would take her.
|The last resting place of Irene|
Editor’s Note: Alas, this is the final post from the Optimistic Fools. We’ve been following their progress from London to Mongolia as part of the 2008 Mongol Rally. We’re thrilled they made it, though we’re more than a little sad Chris and Olly are no longer writing about their adventures. Maybe we can convince them to do it all over again in 2009…