Welcome to the Mongol Rally Diaries series by Benny D. These blog posts showcase Benny D’s journey from London to Mongolia as part of the legendary Mongol Rally.
From Shymkent we followed a flat dry dusty road through to Taraz and joined the queue for the boarder crossing into Kyrgyzstan. Vans with trailers topped with gas tanks, old beat up cars and foot passengers with huge bags of goods all jostled for position in line.
The car in front of us was a bit slow to start up when the line began to move and cars behind us just pulled out and nudged their way in. No rules here, you snooze you lose. The same mentality applied once we were inside to have our passports stamped.
A gypsy type lady with a small baby elbowed her way in front of me and dragged her luggage with her. I thought it would be out of order to grab her by the collar and pull her back into line but then the rest of her tribe decided to join her at the front of the queue and one by one they shimmied past us.
The people behind me must have thought I was a true gentleman and it took some skillful manoeuvring of body parts to prevent the entire line from unashamedly bulldozing in front of us. Standing in the hot crush I predicted I would only have to defend my position for a further 20 minutes or so when the official in our booth came out and told us to move back and indicated that the power had gone out. I moved to another line to defend my position once again.
Crossing the Otmok pass in the Taraz Valley of Kyrgyzstan it struck me again how physical borders can dictate the differences between nations. Crossing the border a few hours earlier I had been walking next to our car in my shorts and T-shirt sweating under the desert sun and now I was rugged up in a jacket and woollen hat crouched next to a mountain stream inspecting yet another flat tire.
It was an inspired choice to enter Kyrgyzstan from this direction as the scenery was the most picturesque I’d seen since Switzerland. The roads wound their way up over grass covered hillsides with glacier capped mountains in the background and children riding horses amongst numerous yurt villages dotted throughout the valleys.
A thin stream of white smoke emanating from each yurt signalling the warmth contained inside, the crisp mountain air became cooler as we climbed higher and higher over the mountain pass. By the time we summited our second pass we had stopped to put on pants and jackets and scrambled for better vantage points to try and get more photos of this vast and spectacular landscape in the fading light.
With the spare wheel fitted we continued our descent of the twisting mountain road passing numerous vehicles whose engines had succumbed to the steep climb up and as it got darker it became more and more difficult to spot the huge crater sized potholes that our little car was not built to handle. Being pulled over by the police twice also didn’t help and our arrival into the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek was going to be a late one.
Sitting in the warm morning sun of a café in Bishkek the next day, sipping coffee and soaking up the ambience of its picturesque tree lined boulevards I imagined myself staying here for a few days or even months. Just slipping into the ambling pace of this quaint little city on the old silk road, drinking in it’s bars and restaurants, exploring its green spaces and stretching out on a real bed somewhere. It was not to be.
The next two days in beautiful Bishkek were spent at the mechanics workshop getting more repairs done to Marylou. More time lost meant that disappointingly we didn’t get to explore further into the interior of Kyrgyzstan where I had read on NOMADasaurus so much about the hiking around spectacular lakes and mountains, and encounters with nomadic tribes.
Once the car was up and going again we made a beeline for the border and back into Kazakhstan. By late afternoon we were in Almaty, the former capital and the country’s largest city with one of the most dramatic backdrops I’ve ever seen- 5000 meter peaks dwarfing the skyline that is nestled into the foot hills of the Altau Mountain range.
A common problem in these central Asian cities is finding budget accommodation. There are some hostels but most are located within residential apartment blocks and can be quite difficult to find.
Once we had managed to find the sky Hostel on the 12th floor of an inner-city building we were kindly informed that there were no beds available. We were welcome to pitch our tent on the roof though, next to the outdoor seating area and this suited us just fine.
Use of the bathrooms and wi-fi and probably the best view in town for about six dollars each. Another lovely city I’d be prepared to spend more time in but Almaty was as far East as we would get on this trip. A few hundred kilometres to the Chinese border but still well over 2000kms to Ulaanbaatar.
Now it was time to head north towards Russia, what would hopefully be better roads and the quickest route back to Europe.
Aksuek – The secret town
The Almaty – Balkash road rapidly deteriorates and becomes a potholed mess as we try to push on towards lake Balkash. Just shy of a roadside truck stop we hit a pothole so hard that we bend the wheel out of shape. We change it quickly and drive down the next road after the truck stop. It leads us into what can only be described as what looks like an apocalyptic war zone.
There is a name on the map- Aksuek – but it doesn’t indicate that there are any facilities. At first it appears as though the village is abandoned, 80% of its brick buildings in ruins.
Just piles of bricks heaped up around steel bars and broken glass. There is the odd intact building and then we see some people and a couple of cars near the town centre. I buy a couple of beers from the shop and we set up camp in an empty yard, cook our dinner and play some cards before going to sleep.
We are out in the steppe and it gets very cold during the night. I’m rugged up tight in my sleeping bag when I hear someone banging on the bonnet of the car early in the morning shouting in Russian. I pop head out of the tent to see a young police officer motioning for me to come out.
He is very serious and points to my empty beer can next to our rubbish. I show him my International drivers permit and he says something about passport and tea and that I should go with him. I don’t know if I’m under arrest or if he just wants to question me but I get dressed and leave Penny with the car and tent and go with the officer.
We drive past the skeletons of destroyed concrete buildings and pull into a yard with long grass. He motions for me to come into a house. Inside there are two girls, one a teenager and the other early 20s and a baby boy, maybe one year old.
The girls drag their thin mattresses to the side of the room and set out tea and biscuits facing the TV. The whole time the officer is talking to me in Russian and I just nod and repeat a word when I recognise one.
After 20 minutes we leave and we get back to the car. Penny has everything packed ready to go. She asks me what happened and I say I think he just wanted to have a cup of tea! He gets us to follow him to the police station which is basically straight across the road and insists that we both get into his unmarked Audi and off we go – to do the rounds with him.
Over the next hour we drive to a lookout at the back of town, pullover and question some guys driving in from the desert, have a chat to an old local guy who is out hunting with an air rifle and inspect an abandoned uranium mine and factory.
From what we can gather we have stumbled across what used to be a secret town built around this uranium facility that hasn’t been used since the breakup of the Soviet Union, but as to why nearly every other building in town is a pile of steel and concrete debris I still cannot say. An earthquake, a war or just the ravages of time, we accidentally got the full guided tour from our own private escort who is the towns only policeman and apparently a big fan of Maroon 5.
During the whole surreal experience I kept wondering how on earth I had ended up here and how this bizarre episode was going play out. It turns out our new friend just wanted to show us around his town and all he wanted for his troubles was my Facebook details. I guess they don’t get too many visitors to Aksuek.
Enjoying the story? Stay tuned for Benny’s adventures in the sixth and final week of the Mongol Rally as he travels with Penny from Astana to Moscow.