6am, still dark, -20°C, heavy snowfall - we are leaving Almaty heading north towards Siberia – the real adventure begins!
It is day 67 of our journey to Brazil and it feels odd to think about the goal of our journey given where we are right now as these seem worlds apart. We are slowly making our way northwards over icy and slippery roads. It feels like the Kazakh Steppe swallows us - a white ocean of endless nothingness. Our goal is to make the 1300km to the Kazakh-Russian border in two days but we soon realize that this is too ambitious.
One hour after darkness we reach the small town of Ucharal, a tiny outpost of civilization in the wild. Restaurants are fun in rural Kazakhstan – the menus are written in Cyrillic letters and as we don’t know what the dishes mean, there is no point in even attempt to translate them, so we use our pathetic Russian to figure out what the meal options are. There is always some curiosity what we have ordered, especially for my travel companion Vivek as the presumably vegetarian soup may well contain some hidden meat balls.
We spent the last three days in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital and its commercial and cultural heart. We had a wonderful time exploring the city, marveling at its Russian style cathedral built entirely of wood, strolling through bustling Green Market where pigs’ heads are sold right next to fake designer clothes and old ladies sell hot sweet tea which works wonders against the cold, warming up in a traditional bathhouse and sampling Almaty’s legendary nightlife. We also enjoyed a day skiing in the nearby Shymbulak ski resort which is only 25km from the city center yet surrounded by the spectacular 4000 meter peaks of the Zailii Alatau Mountains. Shymbulak is the closest we have come in Central Asia to a European or US ski resort, with modern lifts, well groomed slopes, fashionably dressed skiers and après ski parties.
Almaty’s flashy clubs are still in our memory as in search for a place to have a after-dinner drink we stumble across a party of middle aged women who immediately propel us to dance with them. Dancing to Russian pop music with vodka drinking Russian babushkas in tiny Ucharal is one of the many unexpected memories from our journey that will remain with me.
The next morning starts with us being asked for help by two Kazakh men whose vehicle battery has been drained during the bitterly cold night. We happily comply and tow their vehicle, an ancient Soviet mini bus, until its engine finally ignites. Soon afterwards, we need help ourselves – as we drive out of town, Pele gets slower and slower and refuses to go faster than 20km per hour. I am wondering whether there is a serious defect in Pele’s engine and for a moment the thought crosses my mind that Ucharal might be the end of our journey to Brazil. Luckily we are still close to town and so we return and look for a garage. It turns out that Pele’s fuel filter has been clogged by the sub-standard diesel fuel in Iran and the Stan countries over the past weeks. Miraculously, the mechanic is able to source a fitting fuel filter here in the middle of nowhere and an hour later, we are on our way north.
Speed checks are a special delight all over Central Asia and appear like state-sponsored police benefits programs! Police men stand hidden at parts of the road where speed limits seem to have been arbitrarily placed and each time majestically wave us down with their brightly red colored batons. The ensuing conversation always unfolds the same way – the police man comes to our car window and greets us with a smile and a friendly hand shake. He then explains to us in Russian that we have exceeded the speed limit and need to pay a fine. While roughly understanding what he is saying, we pretend that we don’t and after some back and forth he asks us to walk over to a nearby parked police vehicle in which his senior sits. There, the whole conversation starts afresh. In several cases, they were even so bold to write down on a piece of paper the US$ amount they want us to hand over for them to let us go. Our best weapon is our Russian phrasebook which we use with a bright smile to explain that we have no clue what they are saying - “Ya nye pa ni ma yu!” - repeated use of this phrase so far always had its intended effect: either the police men burst out laughing and wave us good bye or they are visibly exasperated but end up doing the same.
On our way north from Ucharal, we encounter a particularly enterprising policeman. Given our cautious speed, there is no way he can accuse us of having driven too fast and in desperate search of a fineable offence he tells us that not having switched on our headlights carries a fine of 100 US$. Our conversation goes back and forth until some of his fellow policemen come onto the scene with their police vehicle – of course, without their headlights on! When highlighting to our policeman that he now should also fine his colleagues with 100 US$, he lets out a slightly annoyed sigh and waves us off.
People warned us that Semey in Northern Kazakhastan will be cold. However, we were not prepared for what temperatures of below -30°C feel. It is so cold here that it is almost impossible to breathe through the nose and every inch of skin exposed to the cold turns numb within a minute. Overnight temperatures of -32°C here are too much for Pele – in the morning, he resists all efforts to get him going and we realize that the Diesel fuel has frozen to ice! With some local assistance, we evacuate Pele to a garage where the fuel needs to get de-iced until the evening. Thus, we will only be able to continue our journey tomorrow and we have some time to explore Semey which is better known as Semipalatinsk – between 1949 and 1989, the Soviet military exploded some 450 nuclear bombs in the steppe outside the city. With the image of a radio actively contaminated town in our head, we are surprised by Semey’s beautiful old wooden houses and cathedral reflecting the bright but bitterly cold winter sun. We are amazed that even at temperatures of below -30°C Semey’s open air market is operating – even with five layers of clothes, we feel so frozen after strolling through the market for half an hour that we are taking shelter in a nearby café. I can’t imagine how the traders in the market survive six months of sub zero temperatures!
After a comparably warm night in the garage, Pele is up and running again the next morning and we continue our journey through the endless Kazakh Steppe to the Russian border which we cross with surprising ease. We are running against time as Vivek’s Russian visa will expire the day after tomorrow and we have to cross the border to Mongolia latest then. We still have 500km to go to the border, through the remote Altai Mountains across several high altitude passes, a journey which can be extremely hazardous in winter. On top of this, temperatures in this remote part of Siberia are forecast to drop down to -40 degrees.
In a moment with too little concentration, Pele slides of the road like an ice skater, luckily into the deep snow at the side. The surface underneath is so slippery that even with low 4WD we don’t manage to get out – Pele’s wheels are just rotating on the ice. Luckily, one of the few vehicles passing by has mercy on us and stops to pull us out. I am wondering what the roads will be like up on the mountain passes if they are already so slippery down here in the valley.
Just as darkness sets in, Pele’s rear axle starts to make some scary noises. Tomorrow is Sunday - will any garage will be open to get this checked? If not, we will have no choice but driving into the Altai Mountains with Pele making dodgy sounds as we are running out of time with Vivek’s visa. We didn’t manage to get a garage for Pele tonight and will have to get up every 2 hours at night and walk out into the bitter cold to run Pele’s engine for 20 minutes to avoid that the Diesel freezes again. I am feeling a bit anxious about whether we will make it through the Altai Mountains into Mongolia. We were looking for adventure in embarking on this journey and we are now wondering whether we will be up for the adventure that is awaiting us in the next couple of days.