Leaving Russia we cross western Kazakhstan to reach the north of Uzbekistan along the Silk Road. 2 quite different countries. In Kazakhstan we get the impression of a closely supervised state with huge differences between very small CBDs and all other parts of the country. Uzbekistan – in many aspects it rather reminds us to situations and conditions in Africa. Probably the result of certain contradictions between the optimization of the Soviet era’s bureaucratic efforts and the exigencies in a modern world.
30th April; Atyrau
Then we’re ready for the next adventures. Out of Russia, into Kazakhstan. Of course we’re warned: Kazakhstan’s territory is really large – even after having crossed a small edge of Russia. Roads often are terrible – so bad, sometimes they could serve as a model for Benin. And – the country is known as police infested – whatever the rule, don’t make the slightest mistake.
Despite all these prejudices we leave Astrakhan, drive to the border. A good road along the estuaries of the Volga River; an interesting pontoon bridge to cross …
… and after some 100km we’re at the border. Quite a queue. Quite a wrangling about each car’s position. Quite some time to spend waiting to enter the Russian immigration area. 2h later we’re in. A quick look on and into the car. A smart lady checking our passports – page by page, our Russian visa, the Russian immigration stamp and the quality of ink they used to stamp us in. Then we are stamped out. Some 10km to the Kazakhstan border. Waiting time 0. Stamped in 2”. Car checked 1”. Say goodbye to customs’n’immigration 5”. We buy a car insurance for a few bucks and we’re back on the road by 2pm.
The 1st 50km road quality is definitely an issue. We make some 25km/h; have plenty of time to calculate how long it will take us to arrive in Atyrau still some 300km away.
Then suddenly it improves. Still not good at all, but we can make about 60km/h, sometimes even a steep 80km/h. But still take a lot of care about police hanging around nearly everywhere: not driving more than 50km/h in and around villages – happily there are few of them; driving 40kh/h in front of schools or supposed schools, driving 20km/h if there is a police station somewhere nearby and respecting all the more and less useful stop signals – waiting 1” each time. Behaving this way everything goes well.
Next day sightseeing. No must-have-seen sights in town, rather a stroll in the rather strange CBD of Atyrau. Just 2-3 roads with high rising, modern buildings, large parks, banks and some international hotels. Around this paradise of progress rather shabby, rundown buildings in the former Soviet style.
Very visible many things seem to be strictly forbidden in this CBD. As far as we could understand from the huge information platform this concerns e. g. smoking, playing trumpet, throwing money on the pavement, driving a car when the roads are icy, etc.
The whole center very closely supervised by numerous cameras and a strong police presence. So nobody would cross a road without being guided by the traffic light, all cars stop in front of anybody even assuming to cross the road. And all closely observed by the authorities. Despite these rules, spitting does not seem to be an offence as well as smoking if sitting somewhere.
In the center of Atyrau Ural River divides the town. But not only that, it also is the borderline between Europe’n’Asia.
Normally people going to Asia take the plane, fly a few hours, arrive with a considerable jetlag. Real crazy ones take their car, drive many days and finally arrive in Asia. Here in Atyrau we simply walk some 300m over the bridge crossing Ural River – and there we are.
The whole town is in a kind of preparation fever to celebrate 1st May. The central ground is solemnly decorated. A tribune is being installed for the honourable authorities and half the population exercises for the big event tomorrow.
4th May; Nukus
The landscape: flat steppe on the right, same on the left, combined with the road in front of you and if you look into the mirror …
Please click on the arrow 2c the Panorama
Beyneu – well, a tiny nothing in the immense nowhere of the western Kazakh steppe. Some lost souls living there currently in a huge amount of loamy mud. After the muddy season they change immediately to the argillaceous dust season followed by the icy deep frozen season. A stroll thru the CBD, as usual passing curious policemen. They just watch us permanently, a look at the main attraction of the location – and that’s it.
We were lucky finding a brand new hotel, so recently constructed it could even not decay, yet.
The next morning we leave for the border to Uzbekistan. Quite a degraded muddy earth track – but feasible. It definitely got the last maintenance during the glorious Soviet era. Many trucks and a few cars on the way. A few km before we reach the border Prado’s last chance to get good quality diesel – in Uzbekistan diesel is normally only available on some kind of black market.
Then we come to the border. The queue isn’t that long. 5h later the gate opens to Uzbekistan. The story too long to be told in this post – rather a tale from the roadside. Press the button to know what incredible Adventure a Central Asian border crossing is.
In the late afternoon we drive on a quite good road to Jasliq some 200km south of the border. On the way a police check point. Friendly guys, they just want to register us. They really use 1 of these note books produced in 1981 in Kinshasa to note every person crossing Mobutu Avenue in Kinshasa’s CBD – welcome to Africa in Asia.
In Jasliq there’s a simple roadhouse with rooms, restaurant, watering hole, and all other things you ask for. The place to recover from today’s adventures with a couple of beers in front the building.
Of course in Uzbekistan everything is slightly different – in certain aspects it reminds us again a little bit to the DRC. You all know cars need fuel. Normally you go to the gas station and you have it. Slightly different in Uzbekistan. You go to the gas station to buy gas; either propane or methane. And you go to somebody’s private home to buy diesel. Fortunately our roadhouse offers everything, including diesel in jerry cans.
Initially we planned to go to the shores of Aral Sea – at least the little remaining part of it. Stay there overnight and then move on to the south. Unfortunately weather is not favourable at all. Black clouds promise rain – not exactly what we dream of in our tent. So we follow the main road to Nukus, after some 50 km we take a small tar road towards Moynaq. The road not exactly Prado’s dream, nevertheless after some 50 km we suddenly reach the escarpment of the Ustyurt plateau. In front of us the former ground of the Aral Sea which has disappeared here some 50 years ago due to over extensive cotton irrigation.
It’s rainy and the path leading to the shore of the sea is completely muddy. No chance, so we simply descend the escarpment on a better road, follow it thru the former sea bottom for some 80 km to finally reach Moynaq.
Some 60 years ago this small town was a famous fishing port of Aral Sea. Nowadays it’s some 150km away from the shoreline. Apart from showing an advanced degree of degradation and poverty the place is nowadays famous for its stranded fishing boats – probably only that kind of disaster tourism can develop around Aral Sea.
Finally another 150km to Nukus. The town is well known for its grim Soviet era architecture and again for its end of the world atmosphere. Wandering thru the CBD we are quite astonished not to see too many of these decaying standardised Soviet built houses – they are all replaced by slightly more modern blocks – of course again all similar; road by road.
Whatever may be the idea behind these uniform housing schemes, the real sight is the famous Savitzky museum. A unique collection of paintings and other artefacts prohibited during the Soviet era Savitsky collected and hid in remote Nukus – far away from any over committed bureaucrat.
7th May; Khiva
Shortly before leaving the town we have to stop in front of a red-light. Somehow we are a little bit confused. How to behave properly following all good traffic rules, if you want to drive strait on. You stop or you go – we do not know and wait. Whatever.
Soon the first raindrops. Well, never mind the landscape only changes slightly to the previous days: instead of “the big nothing” some small hills and rivers.
It’s known Uzbekistan is not really ready for cars in constant need of diesel. Halfway towards Khiva, we suddenly detect a petrol station indicating that there is diesel available. We can’t believe it, but we get the tank full. To ease the petrol station manager’s task he even has a counting machine for all this cm of paper they call money.
Khiva, formerly an important stopover for Silk Road traders on their long way thru the Central Asian steppe. Even if largely restored nowadays, you can still lively imagining the rolls of precious silk and spices in the alleys of the town, barbed guys with huge turbans sneaking thru the streets and having shisha’n’tea in roadside stalls.
Of course, currently the bolts of silk are largely replaced by these Uzbek caps, the traders by all kind of tourists and the tea stalls by watering holes on the roadside. Whatever, it’s still a kind of magic place with all its minarets, madrasas and mosques.
cu soon; the next post will be released in near future.