One night in Bishkek cost us 1500 som for a room, and one cellphone. Ramrod has now gone dark, since the 'mobile' was stolen from the car last night. Someone was clearly in the vehicle, but didn't take anything else, like Ben's CD player and CDs or the DVDs that were opened up. Bizarre and annoying. We'll be communicating via Cyrus' phone if necessary. Those with a need to know can contact Susan for the info. This unfortunately means no text or progress updates on the website.
Kazakhstan Part One was a real trip. The roads from Uralsk to Aralsk were incredibly bad. You could literally park a Cadillac in some of the potholes no problem. We actually prayed for the dirt road detours alongside the highway as they were often smoother. We had one afternoon of decent dirt, which turned into the most hooligan-style rally you could imagine. Probably the most fun part of the trip.
We camped a couple of nights in the middle of nowhere, one night quite literally. No structures around and no towns nearby and road on which you were lucky to average 30 miles an hour. Absolutely incredible view at night. The stars were really bright and the Milky Way quite prominent. We keep cooking up delicious variations on pasta sauce, onions and sausages.
Aktobe is described as a 'drab, industrial city' in the Lonely planet guide, but is actually paradise on earth. Gigantic posh hotel for a reasonable price, restaurant outside, happening casinos and cool ex-Soviet aircraft on display. We ran into Mission Mongolia and Blue Lightning, the Fiat team there. They were both having car trouble and considering switching over to rail transportation. A supermarket in the morning helped us stock up for the next day's run through roads worse than you can imagine.
Aralsk was a bit more bleak, but the people quite receptive. We attracted a pack of children at the market (strange to be in a shop without lighting) who walked most of the way across town to see our cars. They seemed to like us better than the adults. The Micra makes quite an impression with its NASCAR engine note. Feels like a proper race car really, other than the engine stalling if you don't keep on the gas.
Ah, I was just handed a tasty 1996 era Coca Cola. Delicious.
Once we cleared Aralsk, we were able to make good time. It's amazing how much you can appreciate smooth road, even flat gravel road. Pretty empty across Kazakhstan. Dry shrubby grass, long stretches of road and hot sun to tire you out.
We stayed at a gigantic casino hotel in Shimkent for about 10 dollars a person. Triple rooms with multiple balconies. Rock solid beds which were amazingly refreshing. Also, at the gas station a woman handed Tim three meat-filled pastries for us which was really nice.
Once outside the city, the terrain immediately began to rise, a mountain range basically popping up just to the east without a lot of foothills. Gets higher in Kyrgyzstan but it was quite beautiful after the long flat stretches of western Kazakhstan. I mentioned in text the thievery in Kyzylorda, which really added a sour note to the previously friendly Kazakhs. It was a situation we should have avoided, but in the end we got the Fiesta exhaust fixed for 20 bucks and a couple headlamps.
The Kazakh/Kyrgyz border wasn't too bad. We tried to get suckered but James played amazingly dumb, fooling the whole convoy. It worked and we got out. No trouble with the Mini either, which was nice. Best part of Kyrgyzstan is the easy availability of beverages. On the roadside will be like ten identical stands selling water, coke, fanta and beer. Pepsi was heavily featured in Kazakhstan but Coke is making a comeback. Water had been harder to find in Kazakhstan. The stands seem to be open all night as well, if you get a watermelon craving while trying to stay awake at 2 in the morning.
We just had a fantastic american style breakfast at Fat Boy's in Bishkek. Has hurt our schedule for today, but I think that along with the internet stop has improved morale. Ham and cheese omelette with some sort of real, non-Cheddar cheese and hashbrowns, plus Yvonne orders fifteen different items so there were pancakes and meat to scavenge.
Interestingly, we ran into a Kyrgyz man on the way to breakfast who actually has been living in Sacramento for the last couple of years. We talked briefly and he said the city was a foreign place to him, it's changing so fast. This is about the only city we've actually been tourists in for awhile (lot of the other towns didn't have much to offer, and we needed to make up time). Lots of trees for this part of the world, cool Mig 21 on a post and the Presidential palace is right in the middle of town. Props to these countries for having lots of old aircraft around. The best was the two Mig 23s in the cornfield in Poland though.
The plan is to set out for Almaty and beyond today, hopefully meeting up with our new acquaintance Margaret in Kazakhstan tonight. Cyrus might ride with us again so we'll probably cover more ground in the video games and movies discussion.
A bit rushed on the post here, so it was somewhat stream of consciousness. Patrick and I are having a fantastic time.
PS: Big thank you to Mike for coming over from the states this morning and punching the parking lot attendant who probably conspired to steal our cellphones. Good, quick work. General consensus among the convoy is that no problem cannot be solved by Zidane, Jack Bauer and Condi Rice. Nice to see someone else stepping up as a go-to guy when things get bad.
NB: We are travelling with two other cars, plus the two individuals from the Mini.
Lucas Speed Limit: Tom, Ian, Yvonne (Nissan Micra)
Aces over Mongolia: Tim, Cyrus (Ford Fiesta)
Team Misc: Ben, James (Formerly of the Mini, now in Speed Limit and Ramrod)
Route since Volgograd: Astrakhan - Atyrau (via ferry over Kazakh moat and gravel roads, really weird, couldn't believe there wasn't a major road at the border; infrastructure in western Kazakhstan almost non-existent)-Uralsk-Aktobe-Aralsk-Kyzylorda-Shimkent-Taraz-Bishkek