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.
After the secret town of Aksuek it takes us another two days to cross Kazakhstan from South to North stopping in Karanganda where our host at our (again not so easy to find) Hostel informs us that this city is much friendlier than that big new city up the road – Astana.
Astana was only officially installed as Kazakhstans new capital in 1998 (the old capital being the very charming Almaty) and since then it has erected some of the worlds more cutting edge architecture. It really is very clean and quite the sight, perched as it is in the middle of the desert, like Las Vegas without the casinos and the strippers. Or the restaurants and the shopping and the shows and the neon lights.
Actually come to think of it, its nothing like Las Vegas at all and I got the impression that a backwater pool hall in Nevada would have more soul and character than this entire city. Sitting in the bar of the Marriot Hotel late one afternoon, one could see where the city abruptly ends into swamps in the desert on the other side of the glitzy main strip.
If the government is trying to show the world that oil-rich Kazakhstan is a Central Asian powerbroker then they have all their eggs in one basket. Or one big egg in this (basket) case. And just to add another tentacle to its charming character, I’d declare that Astana has the rudest, most ignorant and impatient drivers in not only all of Asia but anywhere in the world I’ve had the pleasure to drive.
North of Astana the roads were a mishmash of beautiful brand-new double lane highway that would suddenly turn into a bumpy corrugated track. It appears as though the countries whole road works budget is focused in this area in the lead up to Astanas hosting of world expo in 2017.
After Astana the scenery begins to change as well. Instead of just stunted dry brown grass and endless horizons, small trees and green bushes begin to appear. By the time we get close to the Russian border, both sides of the road are flanked by pine forests and we begin to encounter small streams and it seems we have seen the last of the Kazakh steepe.
I imagine that with most of the countries on this trip I had a preconceived idea of what they would look like and Russia was no different. I had never really considered Russia as a travel destination and I had visions of driving hundreds of kilometres every day along big highways running through drab industrial type cities with communist style apartment blocks and unsmiling locals dressed to ward off the cold.
What a delightful surprise it was to have my stereotypical imaginings erased by the remarkable scenery of Russia’s countryside and the historical beauty combined with the stylish hipness of her cities. Not to mention the food and the hospitality served up by the locals themselves.
Little wooden houses dotted around lush countryside, huge rivers meandering through charming towns with impressive of bulb topped churches and massive town squares occupied by statues of National heroes. At first I noticed that the truck stop food was of decent quality once we managed to actually order something.
There are no road signs or menus in English and of course everyone speaks only Russian in Western Siberia. But the closer we got to Europe the more people we found who had the capacity and the desire to communicate with us in English. Not that this minor detail ever stopped the locals from trying to rope us in to an impromptu vodka drinking session at 9 AM in the morning. And that was just after our first night in Russia.
After a month of living on salami, string cheese and dried apricots the Russian cuisine was a refreshing improvement and I might just be the only person to have participated in the Mongol Rally and managed to gain weight.
Over the course of the next week I made myself familiar with dishes of cold soups and stewed meats, forest mushrooms in sour cream and pastry, herring and potato salad as well as Salo – small blocks of smoked pig fat that is thinly sliced and consumed as a zakuska, or accompaniment to vodka.
With a bit of extra time up our sleeves now we had time to explore a little further afield. We manage to make stops in Yekaterinburg to see where the family of the last Tsar were executed. The Kungur ice caves which I cannot recommend, the lovely countryside around Perm and a shock absorber and brake line fixed in one afternoon in Kostroma.
The highlight for me apart from the stunningly beautiful cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg was the village of Suzdal, perhaps a half days drive from Moscow.
It is what I imagine many towns may have looked like in this part of Russia hundreds of years ago, and with its huge stone walls around a myriad of beautiful churches and convents sprinkled amongst green fields and a ponderous river.
I could see why there were so many tourist buses lined up on the main street. Suzdal was the only place in Russia where we managed to find an official campsite, walking distance from the village and perched right next to a lovely stream.
In Moscow I gather all my belongings and pack them into my backpack as this is where I say goodbye to Ms. Penny and Marylou. They will continue on alone for another 3000kms to London where Marylou will be scrapped.
I swear this car had a personality and the radio decided to work once we started to head west again and after it hit some pretty mean bumps near the Russian border.
The liberty of having our own transport bought many advantages. The most I had to carry at any one time was just a day pack and we could leave the bulk of our luggage in the car along with our camping and cooking equipment. We could write our own schedule and didn’t have to rely upon or pay for transport. This was especially useful in countries that had vast distances between destinations and fairly cheap fuel, like Russia and Kazakhstan.
Despite the fact that we did have a considerable amount of downtime spent on repairs, the cost of these repairs were not that expensive, and even when it was quite obvious that our options were limited, not one mechanic overcharged us or tried to exploit the situation. Best of all Marylou could take us to places far off the beaten path, giving us the freedom to explore rarely visited locations – even if she wasn’t purpose built to explore places like the middle of the Southern Aktobe Kazakh desert.
Without Ms. Penny and Marylou it was time to complete the last leg of my journey solo, transporting my belongings with a heavy heart and an even heavier back pack through Scandinavia and onwards to Canada where was scheduled to attend my long time mates wedding in Ottowa. I arrived with enough time to hit the town with my friends and reflect over what was truly a remarkable, often frustrating but highly rewarding experience.
Jack Canfield says that everything you want is on the other side of fear. When you give yourself the opportunity to demolish stereotypes and conquer what are usually mind made apprehensions, the personal gratification and sense of achievement glows like a hot coal, just waiting to be stoked by the fire of yet another adventure.
Enjoying the story? It’s not entirely over yet. Stay tuned for the Benny’s stories about their close encounters with the law