The Road to Russia
15 August, 2012; 17:28
Today, other than one hiccup resulting from a misunderstanding, has been a pretty good day so far. We got to tour a bit of the city of Astana (they’ve put over $1.5 billion into it in the last five years), and, even though we stayed a little later than we’d intended to, it was worth it overall. Then, on the road East to Pavlodar, we found our first Mongol Rally team in two weeks. Now, we’ve decided on using a differet border to stay with this team, and we’re heading on toward Russia.
The roads to Astana last night were some of the best we’ve encountered in Kazakhstan, and, even though we didn’t get out of Qostinay until around four, we made it into town and got checked into a hotel a few hours earlier than we’ve been stopping at night. We did lose a tire at some point on the way. I mean that literally; the straps holding our spares down to the roofrack came lose and one of our spares was lost to the night. It wasn’t the one with the rim, and we’ve still got three so we’re not terribly concerned. Maybe the lower weight and better wind profile we’ll get better mileage and make better time.
We got up this moring and left the hotel at nine to go down to the city center. The futuristic architecture is something that almost defies description. All of the buildings have been built or redone recently, so they have that new gleem to them. Couple that with the immense scale of everything, and it would look breathtaking. What really sets it apart is the design of the buildings. It’s almost as though (and, given the totalitarian government, it’s entirely possibly the case) they were built from the mindset of form over function. Alongside the walking park, huge wavy towers border the starkly contrasting white marble and red and purple flowers; one gets the impression that they’re built of materials from another world. The windows, heavilly tinted, reflect deep blues, greens, teals, and gold, so instead of a grey and black skyline, the shape of the city is painted with a beautiful breadth of palate. At one end is a circular building that feels like a modern take on old-world grandeur, reminding me of the British Parliament had the bulders not been restricted by technology and materials. Opposite this, nearly a half mile away, stands the governmental palace, flanked by two golden buildings set in the shape of half ovals.
It is not hard to imagine the sense of confidence and awe the scene instills in those Kazakhis for their government. The total picture is something that words and pictures can only do so much to convey. You truly must see it to appreciate it.
While we walked through this wonderland of urban landscaping, we stopped in a mall for lunch at Hardee’s. Criticize us all you want, when you’ve been on hard roads for a week eating either canned food or guessing at what you’re ordering from a restaurant, you’ll be wanting a good greasy burger too. Truth be told, it was an almost incapacitating decision for me between Hardee’s and KFC; it’s been a solid two months since I last had fried chicken.
The food court was our hiccup for the day. I walked off to get a cup of coffee, and Chase said we should all go wander for a bit and meet back up at the car. The only proble with the plan was that I didn’t hear it. When I’d gotten my coffee, I turned back to the table to see my teammates gone. Assuming they’d headed to the bathroom, I sat down near the door to wait. They didn’t come back out so I moved over to the escalators guessing they might have headed down to the ATMs and the market. I sat for two hours, occasionally venturing down the escalators to see if they’d returned. Finally, angry beyond rationality, I gave up my vigil and decided that, wherever they’d gone, they’d eventually wander back to the car. They were already there wondering where I’d been, and, after clearing up our misunderstanding, we headed out.
So far it’s been a pretty straightforward day of driving since we left Astana. The roads have been good, but not as god as yesterday. Still, we’re making good time. About half an hour ago, as we were stopped on the side of the highway for a pee break, we heard a little honk as a car went past. Being on the other side of a hill (for some reason we still try to maintain some small bit of decency), it took us a moment to see the little burandy Citroen heading down the road with a roofrack and a big yellow Rally sticker on the side. As one we started to run back up the hill; I yelled, “Rally team!” and Chase screamed, “We gotta catch ’em!”
We piled into the car and took off down the road like a scalded canary and in a few hundred meters we were parked on the side of the road talking to team Hard Yak, a group of four Brits, fresh up from Almaty. They’d taken the Turkminestan ferry and entered Kazakhstan from the south about midway through the country. Finally, we had some native English speakers with whom we could compare notes.
Their route had taken them on significantly better roads than ours, and they were shocked by some of our stories of the driving in western Kazakhstan. Like us, they’ve had problems as well; instead of a madman ruining their clutch, however, bad gas ruined their engine. Evidently, they had to have a part fabricated since Citroens are as rare as Ignises in thi part of the world. They’ve also not had our luck (or more likely, perserverance) with the authorities. Where we’ve argued and played dumb and gotten out of the attempted extortion, they’ve payed out two bribes. They are in good spirits, but clearly, their experiences have worn on them.
We compared routes into Russia, and, in the interest of having some friendly faces at the border, we’ve decided to cross with them outside of Pavlodar. Both our routes go through Barnaul and into Mongolia at the Tsaanganuur border, so we’ll try to stick with them as long as possible. Most likely, they’ll tire of our inane babble and inside jokes (which we refuse to stop making just because there are real people around) and leave us behind or stop and let us drive off ahead. Whatever happens, we’re hoping to run into our Canadian friends around Mongolia, so our convoy is certainly only a temporary situation.
Since the Pavlodar border is a 24 hour one, we’re expecting to get into Russia tonight and press on as far as our new compatriots care to go. Having been driving well into the early hours of the mornings, we figure they’ll tire before we do.
Last night, at our hotel, I booked my flights home; I will leave Ulan Bator on the 2nd of September and arrive in Little Rock (after what will undoubtably be the worst flying experience of my life) at 1:30 on the afternoon of the 3rd. I can’t wait to get home after having completed my grandest adventure to date, and I’ll apologize in advance for how much of my conversation will be about it for the next few months.