Atyrau, Aktobe and Autographs
After a fruitless hour searching the internet for somewhere to stay in Aktobe that didn't cost the Earth, the receptionist helped us out by ringing round a few places. Eventually she found us a room, and wrote the address down for us on a slip of paper, along with her number in case we got stuck. We even looked up directions on Google Maps so that we wouldn't get lost (learning from our previous experiences of city driving...). We finally left Atyrau and pointed the nose of the ambulance in the direction of Aktobe.
Up until this point we'd been pleasantly surprised by the quality of Kazakh roads, from the border to Atyrau they were better than most of the Ukrainian roads we'd bounced along. However, barely 100km into our 600km trek across the desert to Aktobe the road quality took a slight dip... What tarmac was actually left on the road had been laid in the same pattern as corrugated iron, thoroughly testing both the suspension of the car, and our spines. This was punctuated by potholes, cracks, and craters so large that they could only have been caused by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. All in all, it was about as pleasant as a massage from the Incredible Hulk.
Eventually we left the road for one of the dust/sand tracks running parallel to it, which was infinitely more comfortable, and left a very dramatic looking dust-trail behind us. Progress was slow, so we decided to pull off the road and set up camp. Unfortunately we don't have any gas for our stove, so Ralph made an alcohol burner out of 2 RedBull cans and filled it with spare diesel. The diesel wassn't an ideal fuel source, and burning diesel fumes don't really do very much for one's appetite, but we managed to cobble together a hot meal from our supplies.
The next day we left before 7, in an attempt to reach Aktobe before nightfall. We'd averaged less than 30mph on our stint from Atyrau, so the remining 300 miles could take 10 hours at the same pace. The variation in road quality was staggering, with smooth stretches that could deteriorate instantly into something vaguely resembling the surface of the moon.
Thankfully the roads did steadily improve, and we started to make good time. We passed through a number of dilapidated villages, in one of which we were stopped by the police. The policeman was very friendly, and just wanted a chat. He kept talking about football, so we dug the one we have out of the back and gave it to him. He was over the moon, and asked us to sign it before we left! Never thought we'd be giving out autographs on this trip... Maybe he saw two devastatingly handsome Brits and assumed we must be fabulously famous...? I guess being a member of the traffic police in rural Kazakhstan can be very tedious. Not sure many of the Ladas out here are capable of breaking the speed limit.
Eventually made to Aktobe (which turned out to be much larger than maps or the guide book suggested), and found that the roads we were faced with bore absolutely no resemblance to the directions we'd copied off the internet. Armed with only a scrap of paper bearing the hotel's address and very poor Russian, we nipped into a fuel station to ask for a map of Aktobe. Through a combination of Runglish, gesticulating, and a helpful bystander who spoke English, we established that there were no maps of Aktobe. Thankfully one of the employees rang up the hotel and asked for directions. It turned out it was near where he lived, so he said he would ride with us and show us the way! The kindness the Kazakh people have shown us has been very humbling. I wonder how many petrol stations in Britain could a lost foreigner venture into with only an address, and have all the staff doing everything possible to help them on their way...
Despite speaking little English, and our very limited Russian, the chap from the fuel station directed us to the hotel, said how proud he was of Kazakhstan's 6 gold medals, told us he supported Chelsea football club, and showed us a picture of his 7 year old son. We gave him some English tea, and sweets for his son, but it really didn't seem enough to repay his kindness.
Our next stop will be Aralsk (near the Aral Sea), en route to Shymkent.
Hope all is well in GB,
Tom and Ralph