The Mongol Rally Part 3 – Racing Through Kazakhstan
The following is a guest post from 2012 Rally veteran James Higgins. Known to me as ‘Big Bro’. We have a lot of sibling rivalry when it comes to travel, but he just might have beaten me with this one.
We had some catching up to do. During our extended stay within Europe whilst waiting for our third team mate Mikey, we were forced to split from our established convoying partners, team ‘c’MON let’s GOLIA’. Whilst driving in Europe solo isn’t too much of a big deal, we’d prefer the safety of a convoy through Asia – if only to help if and when the inevitable breakdowns occurred. So after driving day and night through the Ukraine, and desperately trying to avoid eye contact at the Russian border, we arrived in Volgograd at 7.30am to be awoken by something spectacular.
The Motherland Calls statue is a monument that few have heard of, fewer have experienced, but none will forget once they do. At 87 metres tall, it lauds over the city to commemorate the 1942/3 Battle of Stalingrad (Volgograd’s previous name), and the perfect way to transition into the Asian environment ahead – intimidating, mesmerizing, enthralling, and enticing.
After a brief overnight stop in Astrakhan we arrived at the Kazakh border where perhaps the first true feeling of the unknown overwhelmed the senses. Known to many Western observers as a nation of man-kini wearing, rubber fist wielding, high-fiving subsistence dwellers, Kazakhstan in our experience was unbelievably accommodating, visibly stunning, and hilariously corrupt.
Like with all countries outside of the EU, there is a lot of paper-work to fill in when driving a car through them (and even more when importing one – as the Mongolian border was to prove). Crucially you have to buy car insurance just inside the border posts. This is a pretty simple process, the hardest part is bestowing your trust upon and relinquishing your money to a man whose office/home is a container housing a three-legged dog which will try and attack you, a semi-conscious woman considerably younger than himself, a chair, and not a lot else. However, once this is complete you’re free to roam the beautiful deserts, steppe, and mountains that Kazakhstan has to offer, or so we thought.
One additional piece of paperwork you need to complete is your registration. As you arrive through a land border this apparently needs to be done within a few days of entering, at a local authority. Although information is still a bit unclear on this to me even now, we did not realise this at the time – only about 8 days into our stay when a hotel wouldn’t accept us, and this resulted in a very tense departure back into Russia the other side. We got off lightly, the border was so busy it appears that the guards didn’t have the time or inclination to check to see if all registrations were in order, and saved us having to buy our way of out the situation, as other teams were rumoured to have had done. Not that this was a particularly rare occurrence in Kazakhstan, where everything has a price.
There are speed limits in Kazakhstan, although no one actually knows what they are. We were caught almost every day, sometimes a few times a day, and sometimes twice in the same town – about 300 metres apart. What this says about our driving I’ll let you decide, but it became obvious where 90% of the Kazakh national budget was directed. Their police cars are like no other, resplendent with cameras, laptops, radars, everything to create a water-tight case in which to extort money from speeding foreigners. However, the fine process was nothing but hilarious, negotiating down from at least $100 to usually $10-20, which isn’t much when split between a car load of people and I’m sure is wisely invested by the receiving police officer, his family, and the bar which feeds his Soviet-esque addictions. In all fairness this process was never threatening, and the smiles permanently etched on their faces (albeit as you hand over your money) is so very representative of the attitudes found throughout the country.
Once we had chased down our convoy partners in Aktobe, a city in the West of the country, we were party to an incredible night. The evening before c’MON let’s GOLIA had befriended some locals, and once we arrived we toured around the city courtesy of our hosts. I’d love to be able to tell you more, but the Kazakh delicacy of vodka and cherry (not mixed), doesn’t help that cause. When we awoke the next morning, curiously all wearing the local football strip AKTOBE FC, humming Enrique Inglesias’ “Hero”, and with a suspicious liquid on our hotel bedroom window-sill, we set off east in convoy across the ninth largest country in the world to battle with thousands of miles of half-built highways.
After two weeks in the country, enjoying a modicum of Western comforts in Almaty, playing football in petrol stations, dodging camels, chastising our convoy companions when their wheel bearing broke yet again, and then begging for forgiveness when we needed towing out of the desert sand, we arrived at the border with Russian once again, a lot less intimidated than before. Many teams took the southern route, south of the Caspian sea and through many other ex-Soviet “stans”. The bountiful stories from these nations sound incredible, and I would have preferred to have done this route if our time and budget had allowed; but if you’re a prospective rallier and can only go through Kazakhstan in the Central Asian leg, don’t be too dismayed, it’s a brilliant place and full of adventure for sure.
Once back on Russian soil you start to appreciate reputable infrastructure. The landscape from Barnaul down to the Mongolian border was incredible, second only to the road quality. As much as everyone enjoys the adventurousness of driving on unpaved roads, these 2 days sandwiched in between over 3 weeks of spine-shattering, patience-testing, grief-inducing rallying was a treat worth savouring before the Mongolian epic that we were finally about to experience. What The Mongol Rally epitomises was about to become reality as we approached our final border.
About the author
James McRorie has been travelling for about 10 years now, with a South American trip fuelling his desire to explore different corners of the globe ever since. As a result he went onto study Anthropology at university, inspired by the interactions between globalising cultures. Most recently he has been integrating travelling with an expedition aspect, ranging from mountaineering in the Indian Himalaya, to partaking in the Mongol Rally in 2012.