Given previous years the mountains of Kyrgyzstan have almost killed teams, we opted to stick to the main roads. This offered fantastic views although the road was not challenging to drive on. That morning Genghis Carn left us to drive on to reach Mongolia before us as their Russian visas had started unlike ours. We said what could be our final goodbyes of this trip and they departed allowing us to have a well earnt slow morning. The night previous, the same Dutchman who had been climbing the mountain pass with us showed up at Tes guesthouse so the convoy didn’t last as 2 for long as Anton joined us for our next leg of the journey.
There was a large lake in the north on our way to Bishkek which we intended to camp next to. This would make a nice point to break up the journey. Unfortunately, on our way to the lake the car began to shudder and the check engine light turned on. After trying to get the problem to go away, we realised that it wouldn’t when our OBD2 devices revealed that cylinder 4 had given up on us. It was a slow drive as we dragged her up through the mountains on 3 cylinders. The roads were still fun to drive on still as they meandered around the valleys.
Our planned campsite was underwater and our backup campsite didn’t appear very inviting so in the end, a search along the road in the dark with Ladateers big lights was needed. Eventually we found a small track off the road down to a river to sleep on and we spent the night in the car. Having no roof rack meant we had to breath in fumes from our petrol cans so we left the window ajar but it was better than having to put a tent up in the dark. We swiftly fell to sleep.
The next morning, there was our first rain in a long time. This was when the Lada was discovered to not have working windscreen wipers so in true McGyver fashion, a piece of string was tied to them and manually operated. We were starting to wonder who the Lada got an MOT before leaving! The road we stopped on to do this felt like something from Jurassic Park. Mountains covered in greenery and low clouds created a gorgeous view despite the rain. The only improvement would’ve have been having all our spark plugs firing. Despite this, 3 cylinder driving was fun as we had to really push hard up the mountain passes sometimes taking them in first maxing out at 30km/h and doing all we could to maintain momentum because as soon as it was lost, it was hard to regain. We climbed up into the clouds, through a tunnel at the top and descended the other side into sunshine. This was another chance to test our mountain driving that we’d picked up on the hairpins of the Transfagarasan. With Caroline screaming and myself interpreting it as ‘scream if you want to go faster’, we swiftly got down out of the mountains and into Bishkek.
Once in Bishkek, a car parts shop was found and we opted to replace all our spark plugs. Here we found that the spark plug hadn’t just packed in but had in fact totally destroyed itself. Luckily, nothing remained in the engine and it had been spat out a long time ago. With the help and toolkit of the Ladateers and Anton, all of our spark plugs were replaced in approximately 5 minutes and soon we had full power again. This was our car fixed and the next morning, the Lada was at the mechanics getting fixed too. Once all the cars were in good shape, we went exploring. There was an enormous bazaar in the north of the city which is the largest in Central Asia. This stretched out for miles with thousands of shipping containers stacked and shops underneath selling everything that your mind could think of. After getting a little lost in the winding alleyways through the containers, we eventually got out with nothing but a new found respect for online shopping.
Our Bishkek to Almaty leg started in the morning with the police pulling us over but we were able to leave with all our money after refusing to pay anything. Whilst driving on the pavement was probably illegal, handing $150 in cash to a policeman was never going to happen. The Kazakhstan border came very quickly and did not take long. The customs officials were not particularly thorough and cared more about taking away a set of earphones for his MP3 player than searching for nefarious items. It was a case of giving them something they asked for and you’ll be out of there quickly despite the sign saying no bribes. It didn’t take long for another police encounter that day as the Lada was pulled over not long after setting off. After hearing how corrupt police are and how much money had been taken from other teams, it was frustrating as we thought that this would be another bribe to pay however they simply wanted to say hello and ask about what we were doing in Kazakhstan. Someone soon performed an illegal overtaking so they sped off leaving us to go on our way. We played it safe with our speeds to not arouse the suspicions of police which paid off as we were not pulled over again.
Almaty is the ex-capital city of Kazakhstan and a modern metropolis. After traversing it to find a hostel, we dropped our things and quickly headed for the Thai restaurant next door. Our palate had gone on more of a world trip than the us. Later on, everyone headed down to the Hard Rock Cafe which turned out to have some live music so our night turned into watching drunk Kazakh people dance before submitting to exhaustion.
Our night had been fun until our taxi got lost. It took an hour to travel the 5km from the bar to the hostel after numerous stops at hotels to ask for directions. The professionalism of the taxi drivers is somewhat below a London cabbie. It is a safe bet to assume that “the knowledge” doesn’t exist here. Both our phones were useless and the driver didn’t have a smartphone with a map which meant that he was driving every street in Almaty hoping that we bumped into the hostel. Our driver didn’t realise that it was not in town but slightly towards the outskirts. Being lost in a strange city abroad is never ideal and had stressed us more than trying to get all our visas in time! Eventually, we made it home at 2AM and crawled into bed as quietly as we could.
The next morning before heading to a lake north of Almaty, we visited Kok Tobe. This involved taking a gondola up the mountain giving a birds eye view on the city. At the top, there were plenty of attractions including a “fast coaster” which is a toboggan run to you and me. The two of us shared one and much to Caroline’s delight as I conveniently forgot how to brake taking after my own father who has a reputation for getting overly excited on toboggan runs. There was a myriad of things that could’ve been done here such as climbing and fun fair rides but everyone was looking forward to getting a camp up in the light and decided it was time to leave so took the gondola back down.
After Kok Tobe, off we went to the lake for a spot of wild camping as we started to tour the Kazakh steppe.