“So it’s with great regret that we have to say the car has broken down, and at this stage looks it like we won’t be going on the rest of the rally. It’s been great, and thanks so much to all those involved, see you next year…” Which is pretty damn close to what we would have been writing, if it hadn’t been for some genius mechanical manoeuvring by the Kazakhs.
As our car thundered north along the road from Kazakhstan’s old capital, Almaty, the unavoidable potholes and our frustrating lack of time took their toll. After finally reaching the smooth asphalted road 100km from the Russian border, we shifted a simple gear, it slipped, and then all we could hear was a painful whining from our trusty steed. We had blown our transmission.
Stunning roads and corrupt cops
Five days earlier we had made our way into Kyrgyzstan from Uzbekistan. This was the first time we got a taste of the scenic roads Central Asia is famous for. The roads we wound along were a continuation of the Pamir mountain chain, where Soviet engineered roads cut into the countryside across impossibly beautiful mountains. We gunned our way towards Kazakhstan as time ticked loudly against us – we needed to be in Mongolia within 10 days, which was 2 countries and 2000km away on deplorable roads.
While hooning along we were introduced to another Central Asian delicacy – bribes. Instead of pointless police checkpoints every hour or so as in Uzbekistan, there were police lying in wait at speed traps along the highways. They would pull us up, as we (and basically every other gringo) were often speeding without knowing it. They would invariably have one fat cop with a radar gun, one stationary car with the sergeant grinning greedily and a host of others running around doing their bidding. They would start at $100 USD and tell us we would be deported if we didn’t give in and then, after some hard-line negotiation, would usually be content with a crisp $10 USD bill or one of Kaster’s pens from Brazil in their hands. Kyrgyzstan was tainted by our run-ins with the corrupt law, and it’s truly a shame that power in the hands of a corrupt few can leave such a mark on a nation.
Less Borat, more Paradise
We made our way through Kyrgyzstan, three bribes and a whole lot of beautiful countryside behind us, and rattled north into Kazakhstan’s Almaty town, just in time for Saturday night. The funny thing about Almaty is that it used to be the capital, but in an effort to revitalise Kazakhstan’s central infrastructure and development, they moved to a new capital called Astana. Kind of like ditching your king halfway through his reign.
Almaty was one of the biggest surprises of the whole trip – a sophisticated, interesting and beautiful city. Borat sells the place short. Judging by the girls we saw out on Saturday night, it seems Almaty is where East met West at a Victoria’s Secret party. What’s more the city is surrounded by incredible mountains, which give it a mesmerising backdrop. (Apparently the skiing around here is really spot-on during winter, a hot tip for anyone keen on exploring slopes and Central Asia.)
From darkness comes light – the breakdown
We made our way up to the Russian border, where we suffered the critical blow to our car, and the transmission went. Our Corolla whined like a hurt animal, as we pondered if we had made wills before breaking down in the middle of nowhere in Central Asia at dusk. What’s more, a delay like this meant we almost certainly wouldn’t make it 1500km to Mongolia in time for our visas’ “you-must-enter-by” date. Then in the distance a glistening beacon rolled along the road and pulled up. Out jumped a sharp man in work clothes, smoking a cigarette and wearing a beret, with a grin like Popeye the Sailor. He proceeded to diagnose the car’s ailments, then removed the wheel and smashed out the drive shaft (which was jammed), attached our car to his small 4×4 and towed us 100km into Semey, the nearest town. We sat in our car, being towed along the foggy highway, making dinner from chocolate and congac. He dropped us at the mechanics, took his leave and coasted off into the evening. We had four days before our visas expired in Mongolia.
We ended up having to wait 3 long days for a new transmission to come from Almaty. A wait like that in a town bordering two hectic countries (Russia and China) in the middle of nowhere would make you want to bunker down in a hole with a shotgun waiting it out. But our experience confirmed Kazakhstan as one of the most hospitable places, with the most kindly people we’d met. At the mechanics, while we received the news of our broken transmission as if we had a terminal illness, two brothers descended upon us, translated for us then hooned us around Semey looking for a new car part. That night they had us for dinner with their family, albeit horsemeat and fermented mare’s milk. And as it began, so it continued, with more people coming to our hotel to take us out than we could handle.
Finally the car part arrived. Collecting our second hand Toyota Corolla transmission, wrapped in plastic in the back of a black SUV in a vacant lot out the back of a car yard added an extra element of suspense to our car’s comeback. But after three hours the mechanics had worked their magic and sent us on our way, grinning like Cheshire cats, the Corolla purring like a kitten as we sped towards Russia.
Even the eight hour border crossing into Russia couldn’t dampen our spirits and we gunned our car towards Mongolia – through the beautiful Altai mountain chain, with 24 hours and 1400km ahead of us.