Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Borat has managed to spark an immense interest of the whole world in Kazakhstan—something our authorities could not do during the years of independence. If state officials completely lack a sense of humor, their country becomes a laughing stock.” — Sapabek Asipuly

Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world by land area, equivalent to the size of Western Europe, populated by less than 17 million inhabitants, and nowadays an independent nation (the last Soviet republic to declare independence). The Kazakh Steppe, the world’s largest dry steppe region, occupies one-third of the country’s territory. I can not believe that there is any other country on this planet that has more empty space than Kazakhstan has. We drove some 2,000 km through Kazakhstan, and I have never seen such enormous amounts of nothing before.

Almaty, the nation’s largest city (formerly known as Alma-Ata, capital of the Kazakh SSR), is just a few hours’ drive from Bishkek and we arrived early in the afternoon. Crossing the border didn’t take any mention-worthy amount of time, but it was an extraordinarily busy border crossing where large groups of people were herded like cattle through metal-fenced walkways by rude and aggressive border guards. Seeing how other cars were forced through DDR style vehicle inspections, unloading absolutely everything for customs inspections, we feared the worst but were saved by a guard officer recognizing the Mongol Rally stickers on our ambulance and realizing that it would be a waste of time to search us.

Also in Almaty, just like in Bishkek, Baku and Tbilisi before, there were people here who knew Ihar, who knows everybody everywhere. So we parked the ambulance in the city center and sat down at a café with free Wi-Fi internet access to eat lunch and send out messages that we had now arrived. First to show up was Kasya Shahovskaya, to whom Ihar had sent a mail telling her about us and our journey. A while later we were also joined by Bota, who didn’t know Ihar (!), but who had found our itinerary on CouchSurfing and offered her hospitality. Then Kasya told an acquaintance of hers, Nikita Galiyev, whom she had never before actually met face-to-face, and he showed up as well.

After the locals had discussed for a while about where would be the best place for us to stay the night, Nikita put an end to the discussion by deciding that we should sleep in his apartment, while he himself would stay the night at his mother’s place to make space for us. End of discussion.

Bota now had to leave us for work reasons while Nikita proceeded to stuff us all into his car for some downtown Almaty sight-seeing. First stop was the Independence Monument, crowned by a statue of the Issyk kurgan Golden Man. On a more pop cultural note, we also visited the construction site of the Timur Bekmambetov movie theatre being built close by. When talking about movies in Kazakhstan, Borat is obviously an unavoidable topic (Amazon UK has reported significant numbers of orders of Borat on DVD from Kazakhstan) and Kasya told an anecdote from when she was vacationing in Italy last year and some Italian guys demanded to know where she was from. When they didn’t take her reply “Kazakhstan!” as a valid answer, she ended up showing them her passport to their great surprise: “Does that country exist for real?”

After sightseeing downtown, we picked up the ambulance and drove it to the outskirts of town to park it at Nikita’s apartment before being joined by Kasya’s friend Sabina Dairbaeva and taking the beautifully Soviet antique cable car up the Kok Tobe mountain to enjoy the views, sights and restaurants up there.

The next destination on our journey was to be the Kazakh capital of Astana, connected to Almaty by a 1,200 km road across vast expanses of emptiness. Accounts differed on the quality of this road and on whether it would be realistic to drive all the way in one day. The most optimistic claimed that it was possible to drive the entire distance in 10 hours in a good car, and the most pessimistic claimed that it wasn’t possible at all. So we left Nikita’s apartment early in the morning to find out for ourselves how far it would be possible to drive and have ample time to find a suitable place to stay the night if the drive turned out to be too long.

Volvo dealership on our way out of Almaty

Road quality was actually quite good, and became better closer to the capital. But keeping high speed on this road did require a lot of concentration and the distance was murderously long. For most of the drive, there was absolutely nothing to see on either side of the road. Early in the evening, we reached the city of Karaganda, in Soviet times the preferred city used to signify in the middle of nowhere in Russian and the punchline of a popular joke built on this (“Где?” — “В Караганде!”). Here we made what was supposed to be a quick stop for dinner, but after stuffing ourselves with shashlik we came back to a car that wouldn’t start.

This was a tricky one to figure out. The ambulance had worked flawlessly for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres during the day, and now, all of a sudden, it just wouldn’t start, wouldn’t do anything. Luckily we were parked in a good spot and despite darkness falling upon us could start investigating. It seemed to be some kind of electrical problem. But the battery delivered electricity just fine to the on-board electronics and everything seemed to be just fine until the ignition key was turned and all went black. Repeatable. Nothing visible seemed to be broken either. No loose or damaged cables. Mysterious. The negative terminal of the battery was mysteriously warm. Could we have a short-circuit somewhere? This would be hard to sort out.

Some passers-by saw our predicament and being unable to help themselves, offered to bring some help. This help arrived in the form of two guys from the Karaganda Rescue Service dressed in matching coveralls, who immediately started to examine our car. At first they were also dumbfounded, but then began some more methodical fault finding. Connecting jumper cables to the battery of another car with running engine didn’t change anything and all other similar theories turned out to be useless. Then one of the guys had the idea to fully disconnect the existing battery, in case this was some sort of electronics problem, to force a reset of all on-board electronics. The problem had really nothing to do with on-board electronics, but disconnecting the battery finally revealed the source of the problem with utmost clarity:

The electrical cable connecting the battery negative terminal to the car was broken, inside of its protective covering. It’s a very stiff cable which had corroded over the years, and the vibrations during the past weeks and the past day had finally torn it apart. Held together by the protective covering this cable breakage had not only been impossible to see, but the proximity of the cable ends had also been sufficient to power the on-board electronics and this also explained the mysterious warming of the cable when trying to suck enough power for the starter motor through the now very thin connection.

The existing terminal connector on the cable had been cramped on and it wouldn’t be possible for us to remove the old cable end from it and reattach it to the rest of the cable. So the Rescue Service guys went away to find a new connector instead. They returned shortly with a Russian manufactured connector of simple and straightforward construction, which for us had the main disadvantage of being designed for much thinner cables than the ones in our car. It took a lot of fiddling to manage to fit the new connector to the rest of our cable, but it eventually worked out and the engine started like a charm.

Joy and celebration! The Rescue Service guys were proud of having been able to help us and refused any form of payment for their help. I insisted on at least paying for the new connector they had brought us, but they sternly refused even this. Absolutely incredible. We posed and took a lot of photos, with a lot of hand-shaking and profound thanks.

Now it was late at night and driving on towards Astana would have been ridiculous. One of Ihar’s friends in Astana, Alexander Danilov, had been awaiting us that night, but upon hearing of our breakdown he instead involved one of his friends in Karaganda, who contacted us and directed us to a suitable hotel there where we could stay the night instead. All’s well that ends well.

The next day we finally reached Astana, in time to have lunch (at a Bavarian theme restaurant!) with Alex and his friend Aidos Kapanov. They also gave us a fascinating tourist tour of this newly built capital of Kazakhstan, which has a lot of the insanity of Ashgabat in it (marble palaces, fountains, flagpoles, etc.), but also contains real people and life. Quite an experience.

Late afternoon we continued driving towards the Russian border, to stay the night in the city of Pavlodar. Here we had been invited by Alex Mans, who had found our itinerary on CouchSurfing, to stay the night in his home. When we arrived, he had prepared dinner for us (and excellent rice dish a bit similar to paella and a Russian style salad), with fruit juice, tea and vodka. Alex works with computers and was proud of his unlimited internet access, so we could do some final planning and send some mail to people along the future route, before attempting to cross the border into Russia. In the morning, Alex saw us off by offering a real power breakfast, rich in meat, really making sure that we would remember Kazakhstan most fondly, before we drove off towards the Russian border to enter the great mysterious Siberia.

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