5,843 miles from Edinburgh.
After buying bread and water and bumping into (almost literally) our first fellow rallyers – 2 lads from Ireland, we shot the shit with them for a little while and then ploughed on through the treacherous roads splitting the sun scorched plains, oil filled fields of Kazakhstan.
Camp for the night was behind a scrubby mound about 200 yards from the side of the road. It is extremely difficult to be out of sight on these huge expanses of flat land. We laughed watching Long Way Round on the iPad with our nightly pot noodle when we realised Ewan and Charley did the exact same thing, probably camping within 100 metres of us, 10 years ago.
In the morning we packed and took a slight detour to go and investigate a huge herd of camels crossing the road. These beasts’ stink, but selfy etiquette dictated we exited the car and snapped away.
We drove into a town about 50km down the road which we were reliably informed had the finest ATM in all of Kazakhstan. Once our pockets were filled to the brim with tenge we set off again only for a police Lada to immediately pull us over doing 15 mph. This may very well have been their first bribe with MMC holding their hands the entire way through it. Round faced and young, their tone switched to jovial when, after inspecting Zack’s driving license, one of the two policemen realised they shared a birthday. They milled about the car for a while looking at the countries written on the bonnet and Zack eventually proffered two miniatures of whisky to make them bugger off. Delighted with their lot, we left them drinking the whisky in the back seat of their car.
Mercifully the road improved and we arrived in the early evening in Kulsary looking for a hotel. After inadvertently crashing a wedding reception in a function room we had confused for a hotel, we got directions and found our bed for the night.
Kulsary is a tiny place, akin to a shanty town. Dilapidated shacks and beggars on the street led us to believe that the hotel would be basic to say the least. We were surprised therefore to encounter a massive, gleaming glass fronted building which gave us a suite, a power shower and free slippers for $25 a night.
We were the only people in the place, yet as we crossed the billiards room (!) we realised there must have been around 20 people working. At the bar none of the bottles looked touched never mind opened and dinner seemed to be thrown together when they realised people were actually expecting to be fed.
Looking back there is not a doubt in our minds that it was a front for something and we were relatively eager to make a quick getaway in the morning. After establishing that we hadn’t broken a wheel bearing and the ominous rattle was just the window loose in its bracket, we set off again only to be pulled over by the first cop who saw us, also wanting a bribe. This guy was far more seasoned than his contemporaries of 24 hours previous. Using google translate, he asked for five whiskys but AJ managed to haggle him down to three. This was just pure greed and left a sour taste in the mouth.
We ploughed on to the Uzbek border without any more major incident, aside from the fact that the road was comparable to driving on a massive rusty, dusty cheese grater and reached the Kazakh border at around 5 o’clock in the evening. Despite the officers here playing solitaire in full view of everyone we passed through into no mans land relatively painlessly. Here we thought it would take a couple of hours at most. We were about 8th in the queue and had been told that the Uzbek border was fine.
8 hours later we woke with a start. Finally we were moving, leaving the compound of razor wire, lorry fumes and urine with just a solitary can in beans in our belly.
We eeked into the security checks proper and immediately had no idea what to do. No one came to our rescue.
The van in front carrying at least 20 people who all had shrink wrapped microwaves, fridges, DVD players and the like had emptied every single item for it to be inspected and passed through the XRay machine in customs. This was not what we needed. Our car would take 20 minutes to fully unload, and double that to put it back on nae sleep.
We guessed that passport control would be a good place to start and sailed through. Customs was a little tricker. After waking the guard who was in charge of scanning passports and paying 5 dollars for the privilege, we realised he hadn’t bothered to do AJ’s. Exhausted, frustrated and incredulous at being in this unexpected situation we decided to take matters into our own hands. Rewriting the Uzbek border process as we went.
As we had no intention of emptying the whole car, we only declared 2 bags and eased through the luggage check. Then came the dreaded car check, where our declaration would be proved to be a lie.
Having watched the car in front have to empty every single nook and cranny for inspection we decided we didn’t much fancy that. Making our guard unlock the boot and open all the car doors himself, as well as encouraging him to get in to inspect all glove compartments etc the idea was to turn his authority and discretion on its head and ‘be foreign to him ‘ into submission. It was a risky strategy but we managed to not come across as being uncooperative as the language barrier and our obvious exhaustion afforded us a veil of ignorance. It worked. He decided he couldn’t be bothered explaining we had to empty the car and clearly didn’t want to do it himself. After a couple of minutes of humming and hawing he returned our passports and waved us through. We got off very, very lightly. In fact the most extensive search was through AJ’s iPad photos, he seemed to enjoy the camel selfy at least.
Around 6am, 13 hours after moving into no mans land we drove into Uzbekistan. 10 km down the road we watched the sun rise in the desert and then passed out in the car until 9am.
The first place that did food was our breakfast stop. Horrible as it was, after ordering ‘meat of chicken’ and frites we felt better about everything. That was until 3 fried eggs dripping in oil and salad turned up. Regardless, it was demolished and we carried on driving, taking in the Aral Sea – dried up after a Soviet river diversion in the 50’s and had lunch at a much better stop around 2 o’clock.
Here we bumped into an Azerbaijani man who was having the worst 2 month of his life, but who thankfully spoke fluent English. He explained there was virtually no fuel here and that if you see people at the side of the road making a hand gesture which looks like shaking the awkward turtle from side to side, then they were able to facilitate a refuel. This was invaluable advice as we required just that service from two teenagers on bikes at the side of the road 2 hours later. 50 dollars later we had a full tank of petrol decanted from eight 5 litre water bottles and we set off for Nukus, our stop for the night, feeling relieved. This was to be short lived however.
The grade of fuel was appalling and Sarah, who only drinks the finest, now makes a horrible rattling noise when the revs go above 2000. Listening to the other cars we realised that this was par for the course and we were just going to have to adjust our driving style whilst here.
We reached a hotel in Nukus and were delighted to receive that last twin room in the building, bumping into a fellow Mongol Rally team from Dunbar completely by accident. We had a great ‘meat of cow’ dinner after our waitress phoned her mum to ask if she could exchange dollars and we went to bed for a blissful, uninterrupted, 10 sleep in a proper bed – banishing the memory of the previous night.
The next morning we plotted a course for Bukhara, 340 miles away, and set off after an unsuccessful attempt at finding a bank. The driving was almost identical to that of Arizona and Nevada, with added craters in the road and fewer lanes on the highway! Sand dunes loomed on the horizon and an impossible amount of clear blue sky accompanied them. We stopped for a lunch of fish (worrying as we are in 1 of only 2 doubly landlocked countries in the world- most of which is desert) and salad eaten on what can only be described as a double bed cot and continued on our way, bumping into the Dunbar lads at the side of the road. Their exhaust was hanging on by a thread and their sump guard had become spectacularly dislodged.
Refusing help, they told us they’d hopefully see us in Bukhara and we carried on, finding our hotel and checking in for the night, exhausted but happy with the days work.
We freshened up and went out for tea, bumping it to 3 other rally teams including, thankfully, the lads from Dunbar. A fantastic evening was had exchanging stories and team names for monitoring future progress and the night ended with 6 of us watching a hotel attendant compulsively set up our Shisha pipe, voluntarily and unsolicited, with the same intelligence, dexterity and intrigue as Heisenberg. He took fucking ages in other words and declined a drag himself proclaiming to have nearly got lung cancer the last time he went on a 2 week Shisha bender. Highly believable.
Slightly worse for wear the next day dawned with the pair of us nearly missing breakfast and setting off to do the tourist thing – allowing ourselves a well earned day out of the car.