‘Welcome to St. Tropez!’

Devin Finneran
Aug 14, 2015 · 11 min read
  • Border — Almaty
  • Almaty — Shymbulak Resprt
  • Resort — Taldykorgan
  • Taldykorgan — Ayagoz
  • Ayagoz — Semey
  • Semey — Border

We were in ‘No Mans Land’ for such a long time that we decided to get ice cream. When I went up I met a girl from Almaty called Nena, she was travelling back from Lake Issyk Kul with her family who had gone onto the next stage. Her father rang and she passed the information to us, apparently it was so chaotic because the Kazakh president was crossing the border into Kyrgyzstan, there were TV cameras everywhere which then made sense!

We stopped in a restaurant about 30km before Almaty and had some more traditional food, at his stage I feel we have probably tried everything but at least we can say that now!

It started to get late and we got very tired, a camping spot was hard to find in a city after the sun had gone down. After driving around for a while we camped in what happened to be the Beverley hills of Almaty, there were huge houses with extravagant entrances everywhere!

We had a bad feeling but had to camp somewhere so pulled in off the road in order to be half sheltered by some trees. We didn’t get to sleep properly at all and we were nearly relieved when the Police came at 4am to question our business. The Deputy Chief came out off duty in a jeep along with a squad car. Feargal went out to speak to them and we weren’t sure what was happening as they had barely any English and we had no Russian.

Eventually they took photos of our passports and we had to pack up and follow the police car. They wouldn’t fine us and they would show us somewhere to camp, which was really sound! We just had to make sure not to get pulled up again incase we were deported, we didn’t know how serious this was! From the conversation we understood that camping was frowned upon in the city but should be okay when we went north to Russia.

The Police showed us to green area right beside presidents park and we popped in for a walk around before we went in search of a route to Russia. Wifi was required! Feargal had promised the guards that we would be gone first thing in the morning but somehow we slept through the alarms and ended up being shouted at to leave again at 8am!

We found a Costa in the shopping centre and decided to head up to the Shymbulak Ski Resort as Mary had advised us to do. We got stopped by the police on the way up and weren’t quite sure what was going on. I was driving and they asked me to come look in their car, they had a video of me driving in front of them, I wasn’t driving too fast because it was all uphill and had my indicator on to turn left into parking. It was only when they drew a picture that I understood what they were saying, I had crossed a continuous white line and should have crossed further up to come down into the parking lot instead. They were going to fine me but everything got so lost in translation they gave up and started asking us about the trip and then let us off with a warning.

Mary told us to ask for Saya, the manager of the resort. We were shown to the ski lift and waited to meet her at the top but unfortunately she was too busy. We were quite high after the cable car ride and I’m so happy we didn’t attempt to drive up there! There was a great view of the city from the mountains and as we were so high up it was only about 15degrees up there. I’m not sure if it was the hunger but we had the most delicious burgers at the top before heading down again. It was only on the way down that we saw loads of people ice skating in the highest rink in the world!

Onwards to Taldykorgan, Feargal had split the distances as evenly as he could but we went sure how big this place would be, it was all touch and go really! Nelly got stopped by the Police but were still not quite sure what for and when he was asked to go to the squad car the man holding the speed gun said ‘Welcome to Kazakhstan!’. He was asked to sit in the squad car while a guard told him about discos and asked about the trip, they may have wanted a bribe but we’d have to be caught in a stickier situation before we started spending big money for no reason.

Feargal — ‘I feel like we’re driving through an endless quarry!’

We started to run dangerously low on petrol so we were driving slow, we had never seen it that low in the re and we didn’t know how long the reserve lasted in the car! We hadn’t seen petrol stations since we left zarechnoye, easily nearly two hours beforehand. We usually stop to refill any chance we get but didn’t notice how low it was until we had passed and thought we’d pass another station.

Feargal — ‘Oh lights, lights are good, I like lights, nope, it’s another machine…’

Finally found petrol three towns up from where we originally hoped to find it! Just after we nearly got hit by a truck tyre which fell of a truck on a really bumpy stretch of road.

I took over and the roads worsened, it seemed to be split half and half between good and bad roads for the most part. They were untwined though, so after a stretch of good you’d have a just as long, if not longer stretch of bad road. All of a sudden I had to pull into a lay by, the engine was hotter than I had ever seen it at the top of the red with steam coming out under the bonnet. I don’t recall it heating up so fast ever before, we were on the flat going through towns as well so in not sure how it happened. A man stopped to offer us a row to a garage but we thought it would be okay once it cooled down so we thanked him and he went on his way.

After a 20min cool down we attempted to make the 14km remaining in our journey to a cheap cheap hotel Feargal had found. Alas we had no luck and after moving less than a kilometre up the road it was in the red zone again, even when I slowed down to 2nd gear it kept on rising. We cooled it down for 10mins hoping that if we drove slow in a low gear that it would help, it didn’t. 750m up the road it started to hear up again even though I was on 1,000revs. The problem had gone beyond our mechanical knowledge, our knowledge wasn’t very extensive either which didn’t help.

Due to the police incident we had completely forgot to check the oil and coolant which we usually religiously check each morning. We thought there may not be enough oil which would lead to the engine overheating to quickly. We put in a bit but it still heated up to nearly max. We decided to look for a tow, nelly stood with a flashlight pointed towards Feargal who was holding a two rope up in the air like a teapot. After 5mins someone pulled over but the car was an automatic and wouldn’t have enough power. And then we waited…

Another 5mins later and two men pulled over, they towed us to the best garage they knew at the edge of town and we were incredibly great full. Sadly all we had to give them was a packet of cigarettes from our bribe stash but they seemed happy so it was a win win. We moved the car to the edge of the garage and Feargal went in search of a taxi and a police man recommended one in the parking lot. He was very nice and even rang which turned out to be a different hotel to let them know we were on the way. Next thing we knew it the gate beside the mechanics opened and a man offered secure parking for the night at a cheap rate so we went with that for safety. It was half 12 by the time we had gotten towed and it was getting very late at this stage.

The taxi man flicked through songs like there was no tomorrow in search of one in particular to show to us. The basic gist I got was that Kazakh Russian and Russian were slightly different but I’m not sure to hat extent, it was catchy all the same! He brought us into the hotel, showed us the room and told us how much to pay the taxi man in the morning. It was a dingy enough place but we had to be out by 7 anyways, there was no point in paying any more!

We got another taxi back to the mechanics and surprisingly it only took 5mins for him to understand what we thought might be wrong (and after a phone call to someone with better English.) He poured about 5l of coolant and glued a pipe for the coolant back together and then he seemed to be satisfied and we were on our way. Annoyingly his jack was broken so we couldn’t lift the car to tighten the sump guard. It was now half eight and we needed to find coolant, coffee and another mechanics.

We found a royal petrol station and hit the jackpot — a cafe and a mechanics across the road. After a much larger breakfast of porridge, eggs and pancakes we were full to the brim! After turning a corner we came across another mechanics, they raised the at to tighten the sump guard and there was a constant drip from under the bonnet, most likely coolant. They removed the radiator and drained all of the fluid and they motioned towards us getting a new radiator, Feargal went off with one of the guys in search of one. It’s hard to go through these situations without the language, any knowledge and not have a clue what the price could be at the same time!

While we were waiting I decided it would be best to take an antihistamine as my legs were completely covered in bites from the camping and got uncomfortably itchy. I have never seen so many bites and my aunt reckoned the were mosquito bites, luckily we were too far north to be in a malaria zone!

After a while we started to notice that more and more off road vehicles that seemed to be part of the off road club were coming to this garage, a great sign for us as these guys were used to fixings machines for these roads, but there was a certain novelty of the micra which was evident as they all crowded around.

They guys were very quick to install the new radiator and test it out when Feargal got back and with another strike of luck nelly read the car manual when we were waiting and noted that we should have front and back tyres swapped after 10,000km and they guys happily obliged. I went off with another guy to get money from the bank and we were good to go when I got back.

We we’re just pulling out when they shouted at us to wait, they came out with an Off-Road.kz flag from their club and we gave them a Mongol rally sticker in return. The lads knew exactly what they were doing and were great help and now that the radiator is fixed there is another pressure off our minds before entering Mongolia. We may have had to use google translate to get through to each other but we got through it and then headed north, further towards the Russian border.

About an hour into the journey a policeman pulled us over and tried to say we were speeding when we weren’t. Nelly spent the next 15minutes with him and another guard sitting in the car, they wanted a bribe of 5,000 tenge but we told them we didn’t have money, eventually they got bored and let us off. Hopefully this will keep working I out favour, we have been stopped 14 times in the past five days and we haven’t had to pay fines or bribes as of yet.

It was like mini grenades had been dropped on the road and you had to dodge them like a game for the most part. The terrain had turned flat and the dry dusty heat was back. Tumbleweeds were actually blowing across the road in front of us, something I never thought actually happened!

We were beginning to get bleak and we were a little desperate by the time we got to Ayagoz, driving on that long monotonous road was compared to driving in a never ending Connemara with no houses or people. Black from wild fires rather than big though.

We drove through the suburbs of Ayagoz and we lost a little hope of finding a nice good place as it wasn’t that big, but we should have learned not to judge a book by it’s cover by now! To the side of a house we spotted what looked to be an area of table booths and a guy bbqing out front. We wanted anything at that stage, we just needed to eat as it was now nearly 8pm and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast apart from a few chewy sweets. We had a strike of genius and Feargal showed the waiter a picture of a noodle dish, I don’t know how we hadn’t thought of that before now! The guy used his phone to translate — ‘you guys travel the world without the girl and come to check prices here in 2013’. The lads have no recollection of their romantic getaway to Kazakhstan but it was funny! The food was delicious and we stopped in a small corner shop for ice cream before heading out the road to Semey to find a camping spot! We pulled under a bridge and found a track just after it, shortly after we had pitched pretty much the largest train I had ever seen went past, it must have been over 20 carriages long and they continued through the night.

Early to bed early to rise and we were in the road for 7, another ridiculously straight road which seemed to go on as long as the Atlantic Ocean. We hadn’t come across as organised a farming system as I had imagined yet and there were cows dotted just off the road looking fuller than we had seen in the past few countries as it seemed to be a little greener here.

Maybe it’s the fact that the ground is more flat and there is no sign of running water that we haven’t been seeing yurts dotted around as much as we did in Kyrgyzstan. We have seen more small towns instead which although are a little tatty, they are more progressed.

When we got to Semey we seemed to find a hotel as soon as we crossed the bridge into the city centre, Hotel Europa was lovely and it was nice to have some chill time before the hectic week ahead of us! We lounged around for most of the day and Nelly went for a walk around. When he got back he ensured he had found a good BBQ spot for dinner and he was right. It was some of the eat food we had on the trip, we got a rice dish, a noodle dish and finally had chicken again!

After dinner we struggled along to the grocery store with our food babies in tow to pick up food for the upcoming week of Mongolia madness. On the way back we got ice cream, it really was a great day for the parish!

Now on to Russia, the final furlong awaits…

Devin Finneran

@HardlyFlawless 23, from Boyle, Co. Roscommon, Graduate from University College Dublin. Events | Travel | Music.

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