Russia and Central Asia in a campervan - An eventful dash across Kazakhstan and Russia

Our time in Central Asia was drawing to a close, and we wanted to have some time in Georgia and Armenia before the harsh Caucasian winter draws in, so we decided to make a dash back towards Uralsk where we could hopefully get our Russian transit visas. This supposedly quick drive would involve driving 2150km through the Kazakh desert. Luckily, President Nazarbayev has spent a fair bit of cash making this road as good as a German autobahn. Well, in most parts anyway.

So we drove west through Kazakhstan very quickly, but made time to look around Turkistan, one of Kazakhstan’s only Unesco sites, and known as the “Second Mecca of The East”, it has been a site of pilgrimage for Muslims in Kazakhstan and Central Asia since Timur (a lesser-known Central Asian conqueror whose armies were as feared as those of Genghis Khan) lay its foundations in the 14th century. And a quick stop at the ancient silk road city of Sauran, abandoned in the 1370’s. It also made the perfect spot to camp for the night.



The ancient silk road city of Sauran
Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkestan
The next stop in Kazakhstan was the infamous Aral Sea, or specifically the site of one of man’s worst environmental disasters. The sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, has been shrinking since the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects. By the mid-1990s it was 10% of its original size, and split into four much smaller lakes. The receding sea has left vast areas covered with salt and toxic chemicals resulting from weapons-testing, industrial projects, and pesticides and fertilizer runoff. These substances form wind-borne toxic dust that spreads throughout the region. As a result, the land around the Aral Sea is heavily polluted, and the people living in the area are suffering from a lack of fresh water and health problems, including high rates of certain types of cancer and lung diseases. Child and maternal mortality rates increased, deaths amongst vunerable parts of the population have risen and weather extremes are far worse due to the the constant layer of dust that sits above the region. All in all a pretty sad place.

The long abandoned cranes of the fishing industry and old harbour wall
The town of Aralsk took the brunt of this disaster, up until the mid 70’s the town had a massive fishing port and had a booming canning industry. Sadly, this has now all completely gone, and most of the population have moved away. There is now just a small run down fishermen’s museum and some old boats to climb on. And the old harbour wall, now standing about 70km from the shoreline with some rusting cranes standing as a sad reminder of what once was.

We came away from Aralsk with a deep sadness, with a feeling that this place is a huge gigantic glaring metaphor of our attitude towards nature, and how sometimes we feel we can just take and take without there being any consequences.
our typical camping spot in the desert as we drive through Kazakhstan
After 4 days solid driving we arrived in Uralsk fresh and early, ready to get our transit visa on Monday morning at the Russian consulate, only to be told that the visa desk only opens on Tuesday mornings! It was quite a disappointment, luckily we were allowed to speak to the administrator in charge who confirmed what papers and documents we needed to bring.

ahh, nothing makes me happier than a good oil and fuel filter change
The next day, the morning extended into the afternoon as we were told to go back and forth from one desk to another never really certain what had been asked of us or what we needed to do. We also weren’t sure when we would get our visas (we paid more for express ones). But we got them in the end and a nine-day transit visa as well - we’d asked for the maximum length even though we knew we may not need as much as that. (We had about 1,500km to get to the Georgian border.)

a covert picture of us in 'No Man's Land'
With our enthusiasm, we thought we’d get as close to the Russian border and maybe sleep nearby. Dodging through the few diversions as the road was being rebuilt, we drove the 150km separating us to the Russian border pretty quickly. It was 13th, but our transit visa had only started on the 14th. Could we play it dumb and make a dash for it? Exiting Kazakhstan was a doddle, and the first guard on the Russian side didn’t bat an eyelid - for a moment, we thought we would make it through. But, at the second, formal checkpoints, the guards weren’t fooled. After taking our passports into their cubicle for what seemed an eternity, they came out pointing at the date on our transit visas and pointing at their watch. Luckily for us, they weren't shouting. They told us we could wait in ‘no mans land’ until midnight but we mustn’t leave our van or make any noise. So we drove to a little parking area and put on some bangin techno. Just kidding, we spent 2 hours cleaning the layer of dust from inside the van from driving through the road works. Had a shower, cooked and watched a couple of episodes of Parks and Recreation, and by about 7pm we had a knock on the door and were told by a serious looking army guy that we were free to enter the Russian Federation.
why does the cab stink of diesel?
So, we are back in the Russian Federation, and we need to drive about 1600km south towards the Caucasian mountains and the Georgian border. The first chunk involves a 400km drive through the desert towards Saratov. Things are going fine until we suddenly smell the most intense diesel smell ever coming from the vents in the dash. That’s probably not a good sign, so we stop and pop the bonnet and recoil in horror as we see our brand new fuel filter, fitted just a few days prior in Uralsk, literally spewing diesel into the engine compartment. We are about 300km from the nearest garage, and Jammo begins to have a minor panic attack. We make contact with our old friend at the Peugeot Garage in Krasnoyarsk, Roman, and he manages to speak to a small garage in the next village. We also try and ring the garage in Uralsk who did the oil and fuel filter change. We have a whatsapp call and they suggest that the bad roads have caused the water drain valve to come loose. And sure enough we get the socket set out, tighten it and all is well. We feel a bit silly having panicked and called Roman. We still go the local garage where Vasily awaits us and gives us the thumbs up.
Sylvie hanging on to the side of the crane lorry
We make it to the south of Volgograd and through the iOverlander app find a place up a dirt track away from the highway that is a good place to spend the night. After many nights of sleeping near traffic we sleep incredibly soundly but, in the morning, are woken by heavy rain, (which wasn’t forecast) unfortunately the dirt track that was completely driveable on is now a quagmire of the most thick and sticky mud I have experienced since Glastonbury 1997.

As soon as we start to drive we immediately wheel spin and the front wheels dig in. I had foreseen this happening and purchased some tyre tracks, but these turned out to be next to useless in this Russian standard mud. They just broke and sank below the surface, never to be seen again. It was hopeless. We knew then that we would need help, so we walked to the side of the road and prayed for a 4x4 to come by. After about 20 mins of looking like fools waving at cars, a massive truck with a crane drove past, we jumped and waved, and about 100m further on, he pulled in, but then he started to slide down the banking and got hopelessly stuck himself. So he got out, shouted at me, and started to flag down passing trucks.

it looked very different before the storm
At this point we thought we were here for the duration of our transit visas. But in the end, the crane driver managed to slide down the banking and drive along the highway and out through a farmer’s track. After he had shouted at us, we never thought that he would help us, but, bless his heart, he came back, told me and sylvie to jump on the back and sped to where our striken van was.


It was pretty awesome hanging on the back of his truck like firemen driving through the Russian Steppe. The tow rope we bought in Slovenia, which we thought we might never use, saved our lives that day, despite snapping on first use, we doubled it up and, after a few minutes, we had the van on terra firma. Only now, it, and us were completely caked in thick horrible mud. We desperately needed a car wash. We both gave the crane driver a hug and tried to offer him some money but he wouldn't take anything. I don't know your name but in the miniscule chance you ever read this, Thank you again.


So, carrying about a ton of extra mud weight we carried on towards the Buddhist republic of Elista. After a very eventful 24 hours, we didn't think anything else could happen. But, it was here that we would have our worst ever encounter with corrupt police. We approached a police checkpoint on the north edge of town as we had done countless times before, reducing our speed to 50, then to 30, then to 10, trying my hardest not to make eye contact. They didn't ask us to stop at first, but in my mirror I saw him point out his stupid white flashy batton. So we pulled over and the nightmare began.


I haven't got any pictures of the police, so here's a picture of the terrible Russian road
Apparently we had broken ‘Russian Federation Protocol’ by having a half-obscured rear number plate. It wasn’t obscured at all, but they had seen us coming and thought we would make an easy prey for a bit of extortion. It was pretty intimidating, we were held in their tiny little pokey office, they had my V5, passport and driving licence and they wouldn't give it back, but just kept repeating and shouting ‘Big Problem for you’. He told us, my licence was going to be taken for three months! Another policeman came in and they were talking and laughing about us, you could almost see them rubbing their hands thinking about the payoff they would get from us. But Sylvie was amazing and in true french style, argued, arms crossed, refusing to give an inch, and obviously massively frustrated them. I then started to audibly google the number for the UK embassy in Moscow and things started to thaw a bit. Eventually after about an hour, they handed us back our documents, and told us to leave. We had done it, our resolve was stronger than theirs, fuck them bastards. A bit shaken we headed on to a car wash and cleaned the van inside and out. What a day.

and here's a picture of a classic Russian pothole
It’s now a clear run to the Georgian border, but we make a quick detour to stop at the scene of another horrible event; School Number 1, Beslan. Where on the 1st September 2004 a group of armed Chechen militants occupied School Number 1 and took 1100 people including 777 children hostage. Their demands were the complete withdrawal of Russian troops and the recognition of Chechnya as an independent state. Their demands were not met and Russian security forces hit back with a heavy-handed raid, which resulted in the deaths of 334 people, including 186 children.

We weren't sure what to expect, but the shell of the gymnasium where the hostages were held for three days with temperatures exceeding 35 degrees, as been turned into a permanent memorial. The room is filled, very poignantly with bottles of water, which people bring, as gifts to the souls of their lost loved ones. The children had all tried to go to the toilets to drink water, but this was stopped and the pipes and sinks smashed by the terrorists.





So, on that sad note, it really was a final goodbye to Russia. A country we entered for the first time back in May, and which despite everything that has gone on in Salisbury has continued to surprise us. We have met some truly great people who have gone out of their way to help us when we’ve been in trouble. Politics can often get in the way of humanity and whilst there are many, many criticisms that we can lay at the door of Putin, I do also think that our own media is guilty of a certain amount of ‘Othering’ towards the Russians. But our minds have certainly been changed.


Next.... we are almost back within touching distance of Europe.

Comments

  1. Hi guys,
    I found you thanks to your over-usefull informations on iOverlander! Nice blog too, I've read some bits and I regret not having seen before as you're almost like an overlander guidebook!
    Now I'm on my way back and thanks to your comment on Uralsk Russian consulate, I saved 1500km not going to Almaty for the Russian Transit Visa. I have a couple questions about your application, I'm French citizen too. Can you help me? Here's my direct email: xavierpince@gmail.com

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    Replies
    1. wow, thanks for the nice comment. Sylvie has just sent you an email. Getting the transit visas was quite quick in Uralsk. Are you travelling in a vehicle? We stayed at a nice hostel who allowed us to camp on their parking area. It's on iOverlander.

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