Stories

 

Kazakhstan


From the 19th of August to the 16th of September, 2017



Shortly after entering Kazakhstan, the beautiful green mountain vanished. Is that it, is it going to be flat and boring all the way to the Great Caucasus in Georgia? Trust me, with Hyundi, traveling is never boring...

Together with Charlotte & Frederik: 'the Germans' and our newly met overlander friends: Marleen & Roderick 'the Dutchies' traveling with an Mercedes old timer: 'the Villa', we took it easy and spent a couple of days around the Charyn river and its many different canyons.

    

The most spectacular (and most visited) of all is the Castle Valley, a 'Grand Canyon like' canyon featuring amazing shapes of eroded sandstone. But the others were amazing in their own ways: Different type of erosion, greener river bed and lonely wild camping spots.

Whatever the route through Central Asia, Almaty is the place where everyone meets again before to split in all directions. We met bicyclists which we had met 4 months earlier in Iran (you see we are not traveling faster than cyclists...), we met new overlanders and MANY overloaded Mongol Rally cars falling in pieces. For some, Almaty is the turning point of the Central Asian journey and for others it is the last place to get things fixed before hitting the rough roads of Mongolia.

    

Mongolia was just around the corner, so close, but so far. Part of me wanted to go there, but with winter approaching, the timing was too short. The first snow was expected as of mid-September (a month from now), meaning limited time in the country. The further west we would drive, the further we would have to back-track. Although some people drive all the way from Europe to Mongolia and back in two months, for us traveling is not about rushing from one place to the next, nor swallowing as many kilometers and highlights as possible. Traveling is also about enjoying the moment and taking the time to just be. Moving slowly also offers more chances to connect with the local people and understand their culture.

After nearly two months traveling together, it was time to say goodbye to Charlotte & Frederik. We were super happy to share the highlights of our Central Asia trip (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan) with them. It all happened very spontaneously. We met by coincidence in Tajikistan, same route, same traveling pace, good vibe, 'kind of' same off-road capacities. Haha, we always joke about comparing Hyundi, our 'Family Van', a 4x4 Hyundai Starex, versus Landi, their 'agricultural vehicle', a Land Rover Defender, very off-roady of course :-) All right, there is no comparison... The point is, we could drive together without compromise for each other. We wish them an amazing journey through Mongolia, China and the rest of their journey to south east Asia.

In Almaty, we applied for our Russian transit visa and stocked up on all the good stuff we have been missing for weeks. With a week to kill before to pick-up our visa, we headed out of town and chilled for a couple of days along the moonlike landscape of the Ile River.

    

While driving on the highway, the engine stared shaking very badly and making very unhealthy sounds. After stopping and having a quick look under the hood, the engine wouldn't start anymore. We knew it was something serious. A few minutes later, by pure coincidence a recovery truck stopped by and towed us back to Almaty (2 hours away). The driver insisted in dropping us at one of the car souk workshop on the outskirt of Almaty.

Finding a reliable workshop at 6 pm the day before a public holiday ? Ending up sleeping in a shady corner of a major city in a car which we can't move? No way... Despite a lot of arguing, he finally unloaded us at the parking of our guest house in the town center. Our biggest concern was to find a workshop we could trust, with someone who spoke English. After a few phone calls, we had a list of different workshops who could work on a diesel engines. Charlotte and Frederick came back from the mountain to give us some mental support. The following day, they drove us to Astana Motors, the official Hyundai dealer.

While stepping in this shiny hall with polished cars and perfectly dressed employees we thought: this place isn't for us. We were welcomed by Michael, the English speaking service manager. "We don't have spares for diesel engines but we can order them from Korea. Delivery takes a couple of weeks. Or worst case scenario, a new engine is 5000-6000 USD, or the spare parts to refurbish would be around 4000 USD." "No way, this is more than the value of our car... What about finding a second hand engine here in Almaty?" "If you come with an engine, we can install it for 250 USD". Although there was still a chance that our engine wasn't completely dead, we were mentally prepared for the worst.

    

Rapha jumped on a recovery truck and came back with Hyundi. The following day they opened up the engine and found a big mess. Verdict: our engine was DEAD. In Michael's absence, Sergei who didn't speak a word of English took good care of us. By the way, thanks Google Translate for making our communication possible!

Here started the long quest to find a good second hand engine. Together with Sergei, they visited a few engine shops: It is like a junk yard full of oily second hand engines. Buying a second hand engine is king of a guess work: You have no idea on what car model it was running, nor the number of the kilometers it has. All you know is the price and the engine number. A pretty scary experience. Luckily, when allowed by the seller, we would run a compression test. First engine: Looked suspiciously polished and we were not allowed to run the test. Second engine: Failed the compression test. Third engine: Delivered to us from a town 800 kilometers away and failed the test, engine returned to the seller at no cost.

We were getting nervous. We had been camping on their secured parking for six days already and only had two weeks left before our visa waiver expired. By then, we knew pretty much every employee of the entire building. "Did you really take THAT car to Africa?" Even them, were surprised to see videos of Hyundi having fun in the sand dunes, crossing rivers or driving over big rocks and potholes. For sure, they understood better why the car needed so much maintenance by now.

As we widened our research and tested a couple more engines, we finally found THE ONE! By that time the front of our car was completely dismantled and the engine was taken off. Hyundi looked as if he had lost his face on a car crash! In reality he was about to receive a major organ.

The mechanics exchanged the aggregates from one engine to the other, installed the new clutch and finally started the big transplant. With so little space to work with, it proofed more difficult than expected. It took a couple of sweaty hours and lots of patience, but they managed. Time had come for the final verdict. The entire crew of mechanic was surrounding our car. After a couple of unsuccessful starts and some more adjustments: Brooooooummm, Hyundi was alife !!! That evening, we drove out of the workshop without the help of half a dozen pushers.

      

For the previous two night, while Hyundi's guts where opened up, we were kindly invited to sleep at Sergei (another one) & Irina's home and were totally blown by their hospitality. They gave us a nice 'Almaty by night' tour to the main touristic attractions, including the Kok-Tobe hill offering beautiful views over the skyscrapers as well as the mountains and the Ski Trampolin. All that with the help of either Irina's cousin who joined us up on the first evening or Google Translate for the second evening...

For the past ten days we have been 'camping' at the fanciest workshop we ever been. Every morning, the car was being pushed from the parking to the workshop. Rapha spent the entire days with the mechanics working on the car while I killed time in the cafeteria in front of my computer. In the evening the guys would push the car out on the parking and we would go back to our normal camping evenings. The friendly watchmen would offer us some fruits and sweets. The 'Hyundai' dogs would keep us company. Although we didn't consider the Hyundai workshop as a first option for this major repair, they appeared to be extremely helpful, competent, knowledgeable, flexible and willing to go the extra step to accommodate us.

    

For our victory celebration, we went out together with young Sergei & Anastasia and Michael & Anna. As there was not much left on our city tour list, we went out for something different. They brought us at the street where all tuned cars like to show-off, racing around and doing donuts... We had lots of fun watching this frenzy while enjoying a couple of drinks. From some reason, Anastasia and me felt connected from the first second we met. We felt like sisters (I don't actually know how it feels to have a sister as I don't have any,haha..). Can't explain, it just happened. The following day, she brought us a box full of goodies. "Home-made products from my mum!" The most delicious sun-dried tomatoes we ever had, super good sour cucumbers, marvelous cauliflower salad, some salad spices, a very gourmet lentil soup and she offered me the bracelet she was wearing that evening. I was left speechless, trying to keep my tears for myself. I wish we could have spent more time together, but it was time to leave the city.

Russians living in the diaspora : The grand parents of the Russian origin people we met in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kirghizstan were sent out of Russia into the new backyard of the SU. They were sent out as part of the imperialism of the Soviet Union to "colonize" the wild southern backyard republics for the Russian motherland. If you ask the offspring of those early settlers, 3 generations later: "Do you feel Russian or Kazakh,Uzbek or Kirghiz ?" You will get very different answers. Although they still mainly speak Russian, have Russian names, watch Russian TV and celebrate Russian holidays, some of them will claim to be Kazakh, Uzbek or Kirghiz, and not to have any connection their Russian origin. But we also spoke to people who seemed to be in some sort of waiting position, still alien to their new temporary home country and waiting for their return to the haimat one sunny day.

We had nine days to drive 4500 kilometers across Kazakhstan and Russia before the expiration of both countries visas. A very, very, very boring drive across thousands of kilometers of flat steppe.

  

The most exciting part of this journey was one morning, when the alarm clock rang at 3:07am. That was exactly ten minutes before the launch of a manned-rocket on its way to the ISS with two astronauts on board. Excited like two kids, we jumped on Hyundi's roof and watched the horizon becoming orange. Slowly a little light took off. For a couple of minutes, it moved slowly toward our direction, high in the sky, when suddenly a ring 'wave' surrounded the light, probably when it went through the atmosphere. What a very unique experience!

As we couldn't find our sleep again, we decided to start our long driving day. With such hot day temperature and no water available in this part of the country, we decided to stretch our day to the max and drive 900 kilometers to Aktobe for a shower and a laundry machine. We reached the city by the last bit of day light and made it to the guest house. Bad luck, the entire building is currently out of water for maintenance reason. The following morning, we left the city with No shower and No laundry to be expected for another couple of days... Overlanding is so much fun... !

      

Oh, I didn't talk about Hyundi's recent misbehaving! About a hundred kilometers after leaving Almaty with our brand new second hand engine, the generator gave up. Good news, the second hand engine came with all the aggregates, meaning we are traveling with lots of spares... But we were missing a special tool to exchange the two generators. We stopped at the next Hyundai workshop on our way, they didn't have the tool either but sent someone to the market to get it, did the exchange and an hour later, we were on the road again. All free of charge :-) Next thing: A leak in the power steering fluid. Left in the middle of no-where with no fluid, we replaced it with engine oil although everyone around told us NO TO DO THAT. In the next town we bought some fluid, flushed the system and momentarily diverted the leakage. As the fluid wasn't cooled down anymore, we played McGiver by wrapping the pump in a cloth and diverting the windows wiper liquid pipe to the top of the pump. While driving, every five minute we would give it a little flush to manually water cool it. That worked until our wipers's motor broke... Two days later, we finally got the pipe repaired in Russia.

With this extra time consuming stuff on our shoulder in Russia, we actually exited Russia the last day before our visa expired ! This insane race was over, it was time to slow down and enjoy Georgia!

Album "Kazakhstan - August-September 2017"

Vidéo : "Kazakhstan, Van Life gone bad"