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Author: Maria Zehentner / Translation: Elke Weninger
Beitrag vom: 11.10.2017

The incredible diversity of Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan, July 2017

We slowly rolled towards the Kazakh border. On the Kyrgyz side, some shops were set up on the side of the road, which shortened the waiting time a bit for Lennox and me, while Leander steered Akela step by step towards the checkpoint. After a tolerable wait, it was our turn. Unexpectedly, everything runs very quickly. The Kyrgyz took a quick look at the passports and pressed the exit stamp into our travel documents without any further questions. The truck was of no interest too.

We went on to the Kazakh colleagues. When we first arrived in Kazakhstan in May, I remember that the truck was examined relatively closely. Let's see what`s happening now. But nothing of the sort happened. We had to get all three out for a face check and received the entry confirmation within a very short time. As before with the Kyrgyz, Akela did not arouse any interest in the Kazakhs. These were almost the fastest border points we had ever crossed. In just 45 minutes we were through both checkpoints. We did not buy a car insurance because we believed, that the car insurance we had taken out on our first entry was still valid.

We headed to Almaty on relatively good Kazakh roads. Knowing that our journey took us through the city we were able to organize, that our second passports with the Russian visa that we had applied for in Austria, that our passport were sent to Olga and Rowan, the "mountain bike couple" we had met in Kyrgyzstan.

Almaty is the epitome of a Kazakh metropolis and its geographical location is unique. Directly behind the city skyline, the high peaks of the Tien Shan Mountains arise, which make both hearts smiling, the one who love winter sports, and the one who love summer sports. The streets of the city centre are characterized by socialist and Stalinist architecture. These are lined with numerous parks and green areas, which ensure a good cityscape.

Since the sun was already setting, we decided to set up our night camp a few kilometers before the city and throw ourselves into the jungle of the big city early the next morning. Said done!

Around 08:30 am, we were in the middle of the rush hour of the metropolis. A truck in Akela's size doesn't necessarily make it easier to drive in city traffic, and the Kazakhs added the rest. They came from the left, from the right, stopped in the middle of the street for no apparent reason, pedestrians jumped out of nowhere, it was a sinister mess. But Leander did not let himself be fooled. Unfazed by the driver's swell and screaming, he steered the truck safely through the morning tin avalanche. Until it crashed! A car squeezed into the far too small gap in front of us. The result was a considerable scramble on his driver's side. The damage on Akela was not worth mentioning. With his arms raised, the driver jumped out of the vehicle and walked towards us with wild banter. In very short time we were surrounded by a crowd of people who were all "eyewitnesses", of course in favor of the Kazakh, which was clear! We could hardly get any further with English. We only understood so much, that the police was about to show up. After an eternity, an emergency vehicle stopped.
Two officers got out, marked the accident site and told us to wait at the side of the road for more colleagues, as this district did not fall within their jurisdiction. We parked Akela at the opposite parking lot and moved into the cabin for breakfast, because you could also pass the waiting time pleasantly. But after several phone calls, repeated appearances of the police, who were never responsible and in total more than an hour of waiting time, it became too stupid for us. We explained the "victim", who was still waiting too, that we had no longer the time and desire to wait for the law enforcement officers, who were really responsible. He photographed our car policy and typed our phone number into his phone, then we left him alone. We do not yet know whether responsible officers ever showed up at the scene of the accident, but no one has ever contacted us.

Before we could spend free time with Olga and Rowan, we had to rip up our To Do list in Almaty. Leander had crashed his drone on the Pamir Highway and one of his lenses was no longer working smoothly. Thanks to internet research, he found a photo shop in Almaty, and had already had a lively e-mail contact with one af the employees before our arrival. Repairing the lens shouldn't be a problem and the drone, that Leander had been toying with for a long time, was also in stock. By the way: Super nice and competent employees in the photostore. Highly recommended.

While Leander was groaning at the photostore, Lennox and I tormented each other at just under 40 degrees on a playground nearby. The little one almost burned the bottom of his trousers on a slide, so we decided to have an ice cream and waited impatiently for Leander in a shady place. Finally, he came bent around the corner, with a wide grin on his face and a large bag in his hand, promising that he could not resist the new drone. The lens was also repaired. Point one of the list was chopped off. Leander's foray into the media world had taken the whole afternoon. The day had more or less run and we all were very hungry.
We jumped into the car and parked next to a huge shopping mall, which could be found in Almaty on every corner. With Burger & Co we fed our stomach first and then our ego with some clothes. It is frightening how quickly one can get used to big cities and their temptations, which lurked everywhere on shopping-mad consumers. After we had more than strained our purse, we strolled to the truck and set out in search of a reasonably quiet place to sleep. Rowan, who we had told that we were already in the city, helped us via WhatsApp with coordinates.

The next day was reserved for the Mongolian embassy, as Austrians needed a visa to enter the country. Due to construction sites, however, it was very difficult to access. We drove around in a circle dozens of times, but we didn't find the way into the gates. We parked the truck some distance away and set off on foot. Once there, unfortunately, we stood in front of closed gates. Once again stupid of us, because a short call would have saved a lot of time. But we would stay in Almaty for several more days and had to try our luck on another day. Which in turn, meant tackling the most unpleasant and at the same time most important thing. Akela! We made our way to a large MAN workshop, with which we had been in contact for several days.

We hoped to get front shock absorbers there and wanted to have the truck checked in general, because Leander suspected, that due to the disastrous roads of the last tens of thousands of kilometers, some camps had been knocked out. Rafael, our contact person spoke relatively good English and seemed very sympathetic. We hoped to be in good hands in a large, well-known workshop, especially since it was praised in the highest tones in various travel forums. But somehow we couldn't confirm that. In the four days we stayed in the halls of MAN, we sometimes felt of left alone and not cared about. You couldn't let the guys work alone. Even changing the tyres did not go smoothly. If Leander had not been present with his Argus eyes all the time, we would have had the wheels mounted completely sideways.

Rafael was able to organize front shock absorbers and arranged the installation. They also managed an oil change, but then, nothing else happened. Leander always pushed the mechanics to make a propper check on the truck, but the guys did not understand, what he meant, or didn`t want to. As often as it worked, they tried to escape Leander. Leander got angry. We were already for five days in the garage, and non of the repairs we discussed with Raphael in advance were done. Nothing happened. After they finally managed to take a look under Akela, it just came out that everything was fine. Whaaattt? Even Leander as a layman could already see, that bearings had been knocked out at the front. Rafael justified himself by saying, that he and his team no longer dared to work on a truck because of his age, which is1977, because if something went wrong with further repairs, they could not find spare parts. Ok, partly understandable, but basically we didn't want a repair, but just a proper look under the truck by a reasonable mechanic.

It seemed as if proper screwing was no longer common in workshops. Defective trucks were only attached to fault detectors and the mechanics were following the manual. Of course, they were at the wrong address at Akela, because he had nothing to do with modern technology.

What was actually a reason why we bougth this truck, because we thought the more easterly you drive, the more the guys can still repair and deal with basic technology, not just exchange. Well, the times are probably over here.

However, the MAN garage had a notable advantage, at least for Lennox and me. From the grounds, a forgotten staircase, which was overgrown with plants, led directly into a dreamlike water landscape. The Ray Pool Club! The program of Lennox and me looked like this the following days. Organizing stuff in the morning hours, and jumping into the pool in the evening.

The team work with Raphael became a bit crazy, that`s why we allowed ourselves to ask the Volvo truck workshop next door, if they could check the truck. And they did. In less than an hour, we knew more about Akela's condition. Four bearings had been knocked out and some seals needed to be replaced. Since we had already wasted so much of our precious time in the MAN workshop and did not get spare parts in Kazakhstan, we decided to cancel these repairs here in Kazachsthan and try in Russia, our next destination. Somehow we were hoping that the Russians had a little more glue about how to handle our oldie.

It had already become late afternoon when we drove out of the Volvo garage. before we could call Rowan, that we finally had time for a meeting. We agreed a time at the parking lot he had recommended to us and waited there for him. Just in time, the Briton appeared at the truck with a wide grin. He invited us into his apartment, which was only a few steps away from our pitch, and at the same time offered to take our dirty laundry with us. It was refreshing how uncomplicated he was. Arriving at his home, he offered us a cold beer, while the washing machine struggled with our dirty laundry. Unfortunately, Olga, his girlfriend, was prevented from working that evening, so after a shower that was urgently needed, we strolled alone into the shopping center with Rowan and squeezed a pizza.

We had problems with the almost unbearable heat during the day. Relatively early, we decided to go back to Akela and try to find some sleep in the hot truck. Hot was the wrong word, inside the truck were tropical temperatures, which made a restful sleep impossible. Rowan invited us to his home for breakfast the next morning, where we would finally meet Olga.

Just in time at 09:00 am, we rang at the apartment door. The sliding doors of the lift had barely opened, when we saw Olga already standing in front of us with arms outstretched. She pressed each of us extensively. Especially our youngster, whom she had already closed a little in her heart at our first meeting in Kyrgyzstan.

A plentiful breakfast table awaited us. But as always when it's really nice, time goes by like in flight. We chatted, exchanged experiences and got some travel tips, that we were supposed to visit, for which we were very grateful, as we were travelling relatively haphazardly in Kazakhstan. Around noon our paths separated. Rowan and Olga had an appointment, and we had to sort out, where our journey should take us. In order to arrange the received input a little, we decided to go to a nearby cafe to guess what was next on the plan. As time had already progressed, we decided to go to Bartogai Lake, which was only 180 km away from Almaty. A distance which we could still manage in the afternoon. The roads there should be in relatively good condition, according to the two.

The sun was already slowly creeping behind the mountains when we reached the lake. But unfortunately it turned out to be more of a flop. The water was dirty and the landscape around the lake did not invite to stay. But for that night it had to be enough. It blew a slight air, just right to finally try out one of the two steering kites, that we had bought in Iran at the time. It worked beautifully, and Lennox and I had a lot of fun with it.

The next morning we allowed ourselves to switch the alarm clock to "off". Many people often think that traveling is all the time in the world. Unfortunately, this was far too rare. Workshop appointments, long driving distances, various tasks forced us, to climb out of the warm beds early in the morning, whether we wanted to do or not. Equate with the familiar hamster wheel at home, where you usually get out grumpy early in the morning during the week, to earn your money.

While Lennox and I explored the lake shore for hidden treasures the next day, Leander let the drone rise above us, to capture the landscape. Afterwards we discussed the next destinations during breakfast. Kaindy Lake and Charyn Canyon were spots, that made it to the shortlist. Olga and Rowan had recommended these two places, and from Martin and Xenia (you remember we spent some nice days together in Kyrgyzstan) we knew already some photos from their Instagram account. We decided for Lake Kaindy, which was less than 120km away.

The lake is located 1867 meters above sea level and has a length of 400 meters. In some places it is up to 30 meters deep. It was created in a strange way. In 1911, a huge landslide was triggered by an earthquake. The gorge was blocked by the many falling debris, creating a dam. In it, the rainwater of the last decades collected and now forms the Kaindy Lake. The dead spruce trunks, which are located in the water surface, make this place something mystical.

Unfortunately, reaching this mysterious place was extremely difficult. About 12 km before the Navi predicted the destination, we gave up with Akela. We placed the oldie safely at a beautiful riverbed, before the ascent to the lake began. It was time to get the cross from the rack, and drive the last kilometers with the bike, to avoid nasty surprises on the road. When we arrived at the supposed target, we trimmed a little. The scenery we found, had nothing in common with the pictures we knew from Xenia and Martin. Quite the contrary! We burst into a party camp with loud roaring music and drunken Russians and Kazakhs. After tedious inquiries we heared, that Kaindy Lake would only be accessible with a 20-minute walk. We parked the Honda and staggered off. After a few minutes of hiking we could see the emerald-green water of the lake flashing through the treetops.
The anticipation of bathing and a secluded place were clouded by the incoming bad weather. Even the "wow" effect somehow didn't come. The place was nice. The sight of dead spruce trees in the water seemed unfamiliar to us, but it was not mystical. Maybe if there wasn't rubbish and dirt lying around like everywhere. In addition, far too many people roamed the lake for our taste. Leander took some photos and launched the drone. Then we emptied our snackbox and made our way back to Akela, before it started to rain. To be honest, we found the parking space of the truck much more beautiful. The water of the small river was icy cold but crystal clear, untouched by man and garbage. What more do you want?

After two days at the foot of Kaindy Lake, we broke off our tents and headed to Charyn National Park. The real attraction of Charyn National Park is Charyn Canyon, a dried-up side arm of the Charyn River. The erosion has cut great rock formations and rocky outcrops into the red sandstone here for years. The canyon is often compared to the Grand Canyon in the USA, but Charyn Canyon is slightly smaller but similarly bizarre.

In the late afternoon, when it was not so hot, we reached the park. We stripped over our hiking boots and walked along the ridge of the canyon. The already slowly setting sun tuned the unique rock formations into a powerful play of light and shadow. With a little imagination you could recognize animals, faces or even objects in the stones, which resulted in a funny game.

It was already dark when we returned to Akela. I prepared a quick supper and wanted to see Lennox go to bed as quickly as possible. When his toothbrush fell to the ground in the bathroom and I bent over, a little scream escaped me. Something small, furry had made it comfortable on the cardboard. After a closer inspection I had a suspicion, but I wanted Leander having a look too. A small bat had probably already climbed into Kaindy Lake and now got a free lift to Charyn Canyon. Leander bugged the hairy dwarf onto a branch and showed it to Lennox before gently dropping it in a safe place outside the truck. The next morning we went on a short hike in the national park, before we got behind the wheel and continued our journey.

"All roads lead to Rome," a saying from Emperor Augustus, who messed the words into a stone plaque, which he set up at the Roman Forum. All our paths led back to Almaty. No matter how we turned it, we had to go back to the city, but we didn't find that uncomfortable.

Olga and Rowan had time and we arranged to have dinner in a nice restaurant. We had a lot of fun that evening, enjoyed excellent cuisine, drank a few beers and Lennox enchanted Olga with his charm. It sometimes made me shudder a little, when I mentally stretched the wheel ten years further. At the tender age of five, our son managed to melt the hearts of almost every woman who ran over us. That could be cheerful.

After one of the hottest nights in the truck, Lennox and I drove to the nearby Delfin Spa, a swimming pool, to cool off. Meanwhile, Leander melted in the truck while editing his photos. But after a long time it also got too hot on his laptop and to save him from the final knockout, he put it in the fridge and followed us into the swimming pool, where we spent a few more hours together.

After so many days in Almaty, which we had originally not planned, time was a little pressing. The Russia visa, which we had applied for in Austria with our second passports, had arrived in Almaty at Rowan`s place on time. Nothing stopped us from heading to Russia. On the way there we passed more or less Alakol Lake. We dared to try to find a relaxing place for the next one or two days.

Lake Alakol is a saltwater lake and has a size of 2,650km2. Due to enormous road damage, the access to the lake was only passable at one pace. The water surface and the shore around it is listed as one of the most important bird areas in Central Asia. Nevertheless, a popular wild camping area has established itself in the summer, which unfortunately is hardly controlled. During the holiday months, the lake is used by Kazakhs, Russians and Chinese as a popular holiday destination. The consequence of mass tourism, as everywhere, is garbage. No one cares about its elimination.

After sitting behind the wheel for hours in scorching heat to get to Alakol Lake, it took us several hours to find an acceptable place on the shore for us and Akela. We drove across the street over stick and stone without an apparent road. Until it finally became too stupid for us and we simply parked Akela in the middle of nowhere, as close as possible to the lake. We shared the spot with several Russian families, who spent their summer holidays there.

The water of the lake was pleasantly warm and clean. By now, we had learned to ignore the littered state around. I know it is not right, but we have not been able to launch an 'environmental campaign' in Central Asia. We did at least everything we could to ensure, that we did not make a splash of deterioration. Often we collected our own garbage in large plastic bags for days and took it around with us, until we had the opportunity to dispose it.

After two nights at Alakol Lake, we set off around noon the following day and rattled agains the Russian border. Crackling was the right word, because we needed 12 hours for 300km. It was annoying and demotivating. Our broken bearings came up with every pothole, and not to mention our licking differential simmering at the back. But we had a great hope, that made us persevere. The roads in Russia should be in excellent conditions.

About 20km in front the Russian border, we more or less stayed next to the road. We wanted to leave early the next morning to cross the border. Terrible horror stories circulated in travel forums, as almost always, about entering Putin's territory. It horrified us a little, but we hoped and trusted for more luck!

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