We heard the Kazakh border was super easy, and sure enough it took maybe 30 minutes to cross from Kyrgyzstan in. There is an annoying part of the process, which are these dudes that hang out on both sides and walk up to your car and insist on selling you insurance. Even though they have no authority to do so and might not even be selling real insurance, they will persist and persist and even ask for you to prove to them you have a green card. Not to mention having car insurance in Kazakhstan isn’t mandatory (as far as we knew, though this would cause a stink later.)
In an effort to cut out 1-2 days of driving we had elected to go directly north through the easy border, instead of going east to Almaty. The other way would have also put us on a considerably more direct route to Russia as it was at least 300km shorter. However, we had been told that the highway (the A-350) was terrible and slow going, so it was another reason to take the other route even though it was way longer.
One of the things I had read about over the years and been reaffirmed by people who had already passed through is that cops in Kazakhstan are incredibly corrupt. They will look for any reason to pull you over, and once that happens you’re in a situation where you’re involved in some sort of extortion scheme. There are checkpoints every so often, and if the police feel like it they make you stop and then the fun starts. About an hour into the drive we got pulled over for a stupid reason. The fucking headlights. We had completely forgotten that Kazakh law states that you have to have your headlights on ALL DAY. At this point it’s around 9am, so it’s ridiculous and obviously not a safety problem. It is a law designed to give police a reason to pull you over. I was driving at the time. Awesome. The Brits didn’t have theirs on either, so Dave and I had to walk across the street to the trailer they had set up as their headquarters. When we got in there we noticed there were small cells on each end of the trailer, so uuuuuh yeah this would be interesting. The officer explained in Russian and broken English that our lights weren’t on, and that we would have to pay a fine to the tune of $33. At this point I should mention there are two types of fines, and this is really important. If an officer wants to write you a ticket and says you need to go into town to pay it, it’s actually a legitimate fine, even if it’s for a ridiculous reason. The other type of fine is where you are pulled over and are asked to pay for the “ticket” right then. That’s when you know you’re in bribery territory. We ended up being in the former category, that is to say he wanted to write us the tickets and direct us into town. This is where I wanted to try the old razzle dazzle, feign ignorance and talk my way out of it. I think Dave was fine with paying the ticket, but honestly I wasn’t. I explained that I understood the lights needed to be on, they weren’t, but were now. Bob’s your uncle, we’re all square. He didn’t like whatever I was saying, and had a handy driving laws handbook to hold up and wave around saying “you must know our laws” as best he could. Then he would hold up a gibberish sheet that apparently had fine amounts on it and say “You understand?” Dave said yes, I decided to say no. I didn’t understand. At this point we’re in theatrical gesture territory, so in an animated fashion I stated that he didn’t HAVE to write me a ticket since he was in charge. Sure it’s the rules, but ya know… Of course he had no idea what I was saying. So we went back and forth with that exchange about 3 times, neither of us backing down. He started laughing, I started laughing, but I kept telling him that NO, I DON’T UNDERSTAND. At a certain point during this whole thing another office on the other end of the trailer (who was also laughing) made the coy rubbing his fingers together gesture, and then pointed at his boss. Ahhhh, time to grease the wheels. I hadn’t noticed, but Dave had, so he pulled me to turn around and explain and we discussed the options. I had exactly $7 in my pocket (NEVER EVER EVER get out of the car with more than a few bucks in your pocket, and everything else needs to be well hidden) and 1 pack of cigarettes. I pulled both out, and offered them as discreetly as I could. For a reason I don’t understand, he waved that no he didn’t want it. I tried to insist, but he waved no again, and then waved us out of the trailer. Awesome, we had talked our way out of it. The thing is, the longer they hold someone who is being adamant (about playing dumb) to refuse to pay is time they could spend getting money from someone else. He either got bored, annoyed, or both. Whatever, we were free. He even shook my hand on the way out. I regret not getting a selfie.
Unfortunately the roads we had to take to get from the border on to the main highway were absolute shit in an entirely different way. In one of the earlier blogs I had described the “asphalt armadillos” as we were calling them, which are like raised creases in the road. Imagine a half-assed cement road was laid down, but then tons of 18 wheelers drove down it while the cement was drying creating massively long divets. The government totally knows how bad the roads suck too, because instead of fixing them they just put up a sign that says the next X kms is bumpy and crap. Understatement. The valleys (so to speak) between each peak were so deep in these ruts that if you drove with your tires in them you would scrape the entire underside of your car. Ours was already sitting low, so we had to try to keep each side of the car on one of the peaks as if we were driving on train tracks. Sometimes it would be easy, but then all of a sudden the road would split into so rails that you might only have a second or two to figure out which ones you were going to surf on, hoping that they didn’t slowly widen out and drag your car.
I pulled this off google images, it does not do the “roads justice.”
It took us around 5 hours to go less than 100 km, and we needed to do about 600 to get to our target destination. It’s unbelievable that these roads are considered to be highways as they are just miserable to drive on. By around noon we were pretty dejected, realizing that driving in the dark was just impossible and we had such a long way to go. We did eventually get on to the M-36, the main highway that wraps around Lake Balkhash – which by the way is the 15th largest in the world. It’s so big it has ferries to go from one side to another. To put it into perspective, we drove right next to it for 300 km (or 200 miles) and that might be a 5th way around the thing if you drove right on the edge of it. Very pretty also.
Around 5pm everyone was getting pretty cranky as we hadn’t planned ahead and brought food, and we were LITERALLY in the middle of nowhere, like driving across rural Arizona. We pulled into a gas station – which thank god finally took credit cards – but somehow the only thing they sold inside of it were drinks. We debated – read: argued A LOT – about trying to find a restaurant or pull over and cook some noodles. We eventually ran across a little town so we exited and took as pass through it looking for somewhere to eat but we found literally nothing. Somehow we did manage to find a little corner store that sold bread and some snacks, but no one had eaten any real food since around 8am, and chips get old. Unfortunately no one spoke English and they wouldn’t take USD, and with a limited supply of Kazakh bucks we could only afford to buy a handful of small Pringles cans and get back on the road.
Not too long after we stopped on the side of the road to pee, and that’s when we realized we had a pretty big problem. The passenger side door and wheel well was covered in a thick grimy substance, and that was relatively new. We had washed the car a few days before, and after inspecting the underside we knew we didn’t have an oil leak serious enough to do that. That’s when we realized it was hydraulic fluid/grease from inside of the front left strut, and there was pretty much nothing left. It had taken such a beating from potholes that eventually it just exploded. So basically we have no front left suspension. Any impact after that wouldn’t have any sort of cushion, and since there was nothing to absorb even slight waves in the road the car just bounced around like crazy. Hanging out or sleeping in the backseat was no longer an amazing place to be.
The next few hours into Balkhash were a little tense. The roads weren’t bumpy or filled with potholes, but every little inconsistency in the road would cause the front left side to crunch the spring to the point where the strut was bottoming out on itself. We were afraid that after too many of those bumps the spring would eventually snap, and since those things are so tightly compressed the force of it sheering out it might eat the tire or worse, destroy a tie rod, which would most likely cause the wheel to collapse into the well and render the car completely immobile in the middle of nowhere.
We did make it into Balkhash right as the sun was going down. Surprisingly Kazakhstan has some of the fastest internet we’ve gotten on the trip so we already had a hotel picked out. The process of booking rooms was a doozy. I don’t think it was my turn to get the lodging situated but I was getting good at it so I hopped out and went inside. There were two people that worked there, neither spoke any English. It took a solid 30 minutes going back and forth trying to establish the price of a room and then that we needed 2 rooms with 2 beds in them, or 4 rooms. I had a blast trying to figure it all out for some reason. The whole process seemed especially ridiculous, but the two ladies were really nice and we just all laughed a lot together about the language barrier. Oh yeah, and they took Visas. Eventually that got sorted out but we were in immediate need of 1) money and 2) food. We tried our best to ask where they recommended to go, but that didn’t translate so we just walked into town in search of an ATM, assuming the other thing would work itself out.
It did! We got some cash, and on the way to a restaurant that Ryan had found we walked past another one that had a huge outdoor patio and table umbrellas that were colored like the Italian flag. Italian sounded like a welcome break from our routine cuisine of kebabs. We took a table on the patio and ordered beers. The menu of course was not in English at all, and at this point Ryan was starving and was eye fucking a chicken place down the street. He walked down there to grab some food, and in the meantime another (of the 4) person on the patio happened to speak English and helped translate the menu. She actually had lived in Houston a few years back, and when she heard us talking wanted to practice her English. They didn’t have kebabs, but their “specialty” happened to be the one thing Dave refused to eat, which was dumplings. We had all been warned about the dumplings. You never know what’s in them or if they are completely cooked. We ordered several servings, but in our defense it was explained to us as some sort of Korean food. When it showed up it was just dumplings and a weird sauce. Whatever. Food, beer, 600 km closer to the finish and we had hit our goal for the day. Frustrating at times, but all in all it was a good day.