Monday, August 18, 2008

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Or "60 hours in KStan"

I woke up Saturday morning in the opulence of a real bed in a room with a real shower (it worked) and headed out of Atyrau after I made my last post.  Since I ditched Dave on the mountain and Alex is playing catchup I'm now on my own through KStan until I get to Novosibirsk.  Apparently its extremely unusual because EVERYONE comments on it.

In addition the night before as I arrived in Aturau my "Battery" light turned on in the car.  I figured I had largely drained the battery due to rockin a load stereo and running with my high beams and rally floodlights all night.  I figured a day of driving in the sun with low usage of the stereo would recharge the battery and I'd be good as new.


I was immediately treated to some amazing roads.  Smooth asphalt as far as the eye could see.  Sadly my eyes can't really see all that far and before long the road had a change of tempo.


I took this photo about 40km's after the first photo.  By now the road was starting to get bad.  Before long there were potholes that when I drove through my car was literally UNDER where the road should have been.  I must apologize for not getting those photos but when I stopped the car to take a break and this photo I came back and the car wouldn't start.  I pushed it forward to the right a bit and got it going fast enough to jump start it (thank you tiny engine) so I was just trying to make the next city before nightfall.  However the road had other ideas and soon I had abandoned any pretence of driving on the road and was instead driving off in the plains keeping the train on my right and the road vaguely on my left.  I realized about two hours later as I saw other cars doing the same thing that in fact this was a normal process and that there were some actual routes that people drove routinely.  It seems that in Kazakhstan the only place people won't drive is on the roads. 


Every once in a while I'd pop back on to the road for a bit when it would improve but sadly I wasn't the only one.


Somewhere along the line I lost my muffler and picked up a couple Kazakh's for conversation who were, like me on their way to Aktobe.  They helped with the route and we had some great Russian-German-English conversations but as the sun set and my lights didn't work they tried to convince me that Auto Service was a mere 300km's away in Aktobe and that if we just pushed through they'd be happy to pay for my car repairs.  I have to admit that for once the responsible potion of my brain won out over the part that was saying "Screw it and just keep driving it's not like you'll run into any other idiots driving without lights." So with regret I stopped at the next village even though it was only 8:30 at night and said goodbye to my new friends.  I figured in the morning I'd push start my car.  Head on to Aktobe and get the car repaired there.

I'd stopped at a little roadside cafe that a 7 person family lived at and asked if there was a room I could stay in for the night.  They quite happily rented me a room for 500 Kazakhian whosiewhatsits which works out to about $4.20. 


It wasn't quite Westin quality in fact there wasn't a window but that's why I have a sleep sack and frankly the only thing I really wished it had was a shower because driving through the plains was brutal.  Either way I considered it a decent day.  I'd somehow gotten in 300km's in horrible condition with a failing car and figured I could make the remaining 300 easily in the morning now that I'd gotten a handle on how to select paths through the fields.  I woke up at 6 am sharp and hit the road.  Push starting my car again and feeling pretty good about the new day.

Almost immediately I realized something was wrong with Scarlet and it was bigger than my headlights not working.  About 12 kilometers after setting out it ground to a halt in the middle of nowhere.  I tried a couple times to push start it and when that failed I grabbed my messenger bag (Laptop, Passport, Cameras, Phones) and my 1 liter bottle of water for the walk back.  About 6km's later I hitched a ride with a Kazakh trucker who once again expressed incredulity that I was driving to Mongolia from London alone.  He dropped me back at the cafe where I spent about two hours trying to explain the problem with my car.  Eventually they walked out with a spare 12V battery and I was ecstatic but they pointed at it and said 'ploka' which means bad.  However the next thing they did was produce a battery charger.  The mother after consulting with her 12-13 year old son came up with a plan to get my car working. 

Her son (named Aljar) and his two older brothers would come with me to my car.  We would push start it and drive it back to charge the battery.  A few minute later Aljar showed up in their truck.


By this point I'd realized there was kind of an odd dynamic in the family.  While Aljar was clearly the youngest non toddler present he seemed to be calling a lot of the shots.  This was further confirmed when he drove the truck to take the four of us to my car even though he had to be the youngest of the group by at least 3 years.  The oldest being about 36 even differed to him. 

Upon arriving at the car I got treated to the discovery that while I was away someone had broken in my window and stolen very little. 


Should have snapped the photo before we cleaned up a bit but didn't think of it until later.  As a side note window scrapers do a great job of scraping glass off seats.  They stole my burned CDs and the faceplate to my deck and rifled through my bag looking for cash (they didn't take the fat stacks of Bulgarian currency sitting in the dash)  they did find my backup Amex card which is pretty much useless in KStan so in frustration they crushed it up.  They couldn't open the trunk so my liqueur supply was safe. 

We popped the hood and Aljar instantly pointed out that I no longer had a belt connecting my alternator to the engine.  Which meant that in addition to the battery being dead the alternator was also offline leaving Scarlet completely powerless.  We tried to push start her and after ten or so attempts we realized it wasn't going to happen.  I pulled out the trusty REI climbing rope I bought before I left Seattle and we managed to tow Scarlet back to the cafe to charge the battery.


While we waited for it to charge they asked me to show them pictured of the places I'd got on the way to Kazakhstan.  Aljar's older brother was struggling to take a ring off his middle finder to move it to his ring finger.  I gave him some Aloe and it slipped right off.  He then proceeded to show both of the other two his middle finger repeatedly which kinda cracked me up.  Of all the places I've been they most loved Istanbul and all things Turkish.  By now I had decided Aljar was quite bright and learned he was studying Turkish at the high school in Aktobe.  From what I could tell it seemed that the family had put all it's eggs in Aljar's basket and his goal was to go find work in Turkey.


We charged the battery for another hour and I had a last meal with the family and then hit the road hoping to make Aktobe.  But by now it was nearly 3PM and it seemed unlikely I would make the final 300km's before nightfall.  However the roads improved about 40km's later and I was once again able to travel the majority of the time on the actual road.  I passed a bunch more graveyards.  I always want to call them Necropolis' since they frequently look like small scale large cities. 


I'll get a better picture of one later and post it.  Some of them are very impressive.  The first time I saw one during the last Mongol Rally I literally thought we were approaching a massive city.

As it got dark I realized I was going to fall short of my goal for the second day in a row.  I considered driving into the dark without lights since the roads had improved but since I knew I hadn't fixed the alternator I couldn't justify doing the trip.  So I drove up to some cops and convinced them to find me a place to stay for the night.  They gave me an escort through town to the "Nice" marriage hall and talked to the owner who set me up in one of the back rooms since the wedding party was already done with it.  He also dug around in his backyard and found a piece of glass that fit part of my door and we installed it so that now I just have a little gap in the front.


I got a bite to eat and after explaining at length to Jahar who owned the marriage hall that I wasn't presentable enough to join the wedding he tried to teach me Russian for an hour and then I crashed hard.  The next morning Jahar took me shopping with him for the next nights wedding supplies.  It was amazing wondering the market with him since the cultural standard is if you know someone you greet them by shaking hands and talking for a minute or two.  But since he seemed to know everyone it was quite an experience.  At the market we also found a replacement belt for my alternator and I got a healthy supply of sunflower seeds.  About an hour later we had gotten the belt installed and I got two last push starts and I was on my way to Aktobe which was only 100km's away at this point.  Upon making town I found my way to a nice hotel (I'm quite good at finding nice hotels) and immediately took a very long shower. 


So tonight I'll decide my route to Novosibirsk with the help of the hotels manager since he seems quite well informed and his English is top notch.  I'm going to see about fixing the window / muffler so who knows tomorrow maybe my car will be like new..


b mathew said...

Wow, thats an amazing post. Glad you didn't lose anything too valuable in the break in.

Rob said...

Its amazing to me that in the middle of a desert half way round the world, there is a all family who's interest is only to share experiences with a fellow human. It says something about who we are as a species and what drives us... Thanks for the great story Cy... Hmmm.

Lizzy said...

love it!

oh oh oh i wish i was there...