What a relief
25th July, Troitsk (Russia)
At last we have made it to Russia and despite the Kazakh/Russian border taking 9 hours to cross, we both feel incredibly relieved to be here and are looking forward to exploring a new country.
We both hoped that our night under the stars in the wood would be our last in Kazakhstan and that we would be able to make it to the border that day. The roads and adverse weather conditions (very windy) made this impossible and so our last night in Kazakh was spent in Kostanai, just over 100km from the border.
Camping was a special experience and we are both proud to say that we have now camped in Kazakhstan. The sun set over the wheat fields and we were in such a remote area, with just the trees and birds for company. We were undisturbed by people or animals in our tent, but kept from sleeping well by the freezing temperatures. Neither of us were prepared for the cold temperatures we have experienced in Kazakhstan, particularly after we had been told to expect temperatures in the mid 30s from our guidebook. I ended up curled into a tiny ball in my tropical quilt, wishing that instead I had an arctic quilt. We finally extricated ourselves from our tent at 8am and luckily the embers were still going in our fire, so we threw on some more logs and tried to warm ourselves. We packed up our kit and loaded it onto TT and I jogged in front to tell Ants if she had enough head clearance for TT’s roofrack. Due to our lack of cold weather gear we were both dressed in a random collection of layers. This included our bright green tropical quilts (that made us look like caterpillars) and our tropical ponchos (that made us look like green bogies). I also wore my apron and my SARS mask from China. As I trotted out of the wood with TT and Ants in tow we met a bunch of trukkers on the road, who must have thought they were hallucinating.
Our drive north towards the border that day was pretty unpleasant. It was cold, windy and sometimes rained. The road was pretty crap and we wondered if we would ever see civilization again. I was also worried about where we would be able to get petrol. Eventually we came to a settlement and managed to get petrol and a snack at a roadside café. I really don’t know how people live in such remote bleak areas, especially when the weather is mixed in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. I don’t know if it is because I am English, but bad weather gets my spirits down and that drive really ground down my mood.
After driving all day we had to accept that we would be spending another night in Kazakhstan and so found a hotel in Kostanai. Actually, a kind local showed us to a nice hotel as we drove behind him. The only issue was that TT was too high with all her spare parts to fit into the secure parking area of the hotel. This meant that all of the boxes on her roofrack had to be untied and removed. I could pretend that we did this ourselves, but we had the help of a couple of strong Kazakh men.
So, yesterday morning we woke early (7am) and tukked towards Russia. The road was initially good, but then deteriorated as the main road was under construction and we had to travel along a stony dirt track running parallel. At one point we saw cars driving down the main road and we decided to copy them. So TT climbed up a sandy track and we hit the new tarmac, smugly flying past all of the other vehicles. However, we soon realized why everyone wasn’t driving on the new main road. Our path ended up against a 4ft pile sand barrier and TT put her tailpipe between her wheels and we tukked back. I tried to find a short way down, but this ended up with TT nearly being grounded on a (too) large hump.
We arrived at the border after 4 hours on the road and had a bite to eat before joining the queue of cars. Ants went off to do some paperwork and I sat in TT trying to communicate with the locals. The queue wasn't that long, but it moved at a snail's pace and it took us the best part of two hours to move about 15 car lengths. Our visas were 4 days out of date and we knew that we could be in for a bollocking, or worse. The first two checkpoints made no comment and we thought we had got away with it. The passport control booth spotted our misdemeanor and our passports were carted off to another building. Ants was asked to sit in a room on her own while I sat outside in TT. She reported back to me later that the first guy told her we would have to go back to Astana to sort out our visas. Astana was at least a 2 day drive away and we knew that even if we did return there it would not be possible to extend our tourist visas. We presented our newspaper articles and the guards took a shine to TT. Eventually, they stamped our passports without so much as a word of warnind and we tukked to no man's land between the 2 countries. To enter the Russian side we again had to wait in a queue of cars for a long time. Finally we passed through and then had to sort our customs declaration forms and TT's documents and insurance. We had hoped to get to Chelyabinsk (200km away) that night, but as we didn't leave the border until gone 10pm we decided to go to Troitsk instead.
We arrived in Troitsk in the dark and attempted to find a room for the night. The first place said they were full, even though Ants had seen not a single person inside the hotel. The second hotel was also full and we were beginning to think that another night al fresco may be necessary. The third hotel we tries had a spare room, but if we had not been helped by a local they may have again stated that they were 'full'. I don't think they see many western tourists in Troitsk. We devdied to have some supper before bed and sat in a restaurant that contained a DJ and a couple of very drunk locals throwing some great moves in the dancefloor. They tried to encourage us to dance and even attempted bribery by beer, but we were too knackered. We went ot bed reliebed to have crossed into a new country trouble-free.