Crossing the border from Uzbekistan into Kazakhstan (Yalama / B. Konysbayeva) was hellishly long because two members of our group (Daniel from Canada and Kevin from Ireland) had neglected to obtain their Kazakhstan visas prior to arrival. Since they had already been stamped out of Uzbekistan, they were stuck in no-man’s land because the B. Konysbayeva border crossing didn’t have the capablity to issue Kazakhstan visas. Welcome to Central Asian bureaucracy at its finest! Uzbekistan would not let either of them re-enter because they only had a single entry visa which had already been used. And so we waited…and waited…and waited. The waiting game ended up being a total of 9 hours! In the end, the 2 misfits were allowed back into Uzbekistan where they made their way directly to Kyrgyzstan, bypassing Kazakhstan completely. The rest of us happily made our way just a few meters into Kazakhstan where Becky’s cook group (Ben, Becky and Gill) prepared an awesome dinner of tuna pasta. Then it was off to a bush camp for our first night in country. The next two nights saw us at the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve. First day was Bjorn’s birthday celebration after a massive truck clean. Second day we enjoyed a 5 hour horse ride through the mountains which was spectacular. After Aksu-Zhabagly, we headed to the town of Taraz for cook group shopping before stopping at our final bush camp in Kazakhstan. Borat (complete with mankini) made a sudden appearance much to our group’s delight. And then disaster struck in a freak accident involving Ben, Michael and a tennis ball. Ben ended up with two broken bones and a whole lotta pain. He was rushed off to hospital for the night with Michael, Bjorn, Chris, Tina, Kate and Ant accompanying him. The rest of us were stranded in the middle of the bush camp with nothing but our tent buddies to keep us company. The skies opened up and we received the fiercest downpour of the trip, complete with thunder and lightning to cause us to worry. We survived the night and were picked up early the next morning so we could retrieve Ben from the hospital in time for the border crossing with Kyrgyzstan. Needless to say it was a crazy 4 days in Kazakhstan…an adventure that none of us will soon forget!
19 Jun – After exiting Uzbekistan, we thought it would be a simple and straightforward entry into Kazakhstan via the Kirovo border. Little did we know that this would be the most memorable border crossing of the trip! Kate had made goodie bags for us to enjoy as we anticipated the crossing taking several hours during lunch time. It was a stifling hot day and for those of us lucky enough to get through, the surly border staff kept pushing us out of the shaded areas into the sun. Every time we would think that we found a suitable place to camp out, they would come running along and push us forward to yet another waiting area. It was ridiculous…tempers were raised as we didn’t understand why they couldn’t just let us be. Finally, after being told that we couldn’t hang out anywhere in the border area, we finally exited no-man’s land and found a nearby cafe in Kirovo to wait out the next few hours. We knew it would take a while since Kyle was at the back of the truck queue and none of the trucks were getting through. Perhaps the border staff was on an extended lunch break? After sussing out the exchange rate situation (half the official rate for Som and only marginally better for dollars….no thanks), we played a game called salad, which is a lot like charades (the group is split into 2 teams – boys vs girls. You write down topics on a piece of paper, fold it up and toss it into a bowl. There are 3 rounds per game with everyone’s teammates guessing what the topics are. First round you are allowed to speak and describe, round two is charades where you can act out the topic but can’t utter a word and final round is where you can only say one word. Each round takes a minute and all teammates shuffle through until all words are guessed). It was during play time that we saw an angry Kevin getting marched across no man’s land to deal with one of the rip off exchange guys. He looked pissed and wouldn’t tell us anything so we assumed the worst. Then the rumor came that both Kevin and Daniel were being denied entry since Kazakhstan will not give either Canada or Ireland a visa upon entry. Since they only had a single entry Uzbekistan visa and had already exited Uzbekistan, they were essentially stuck in no-man’s land since Kazakhstan refused to let them enter and Uzbekistan was standing their ground that they had no valid visa. Poor Kate was trying her best to assist in this dreadfully stressful situation. Meanwhile, it took Kyle roughly 6 hours to get the truck through…even when he finally crossed the border (yippee), we still had to wait to see what would happen to Kevin and Daniel since there was still no resolution. Since none of us had lunch, Kyle decided to pull away from the border and have cook group (Becky, Gill and Ben) prepare dinner (tuna pasta with a hidden clove of garlic surprise). Young Kate got a unibrow painted on (apparently considered very sexy in Kazakhstan), and everyone else was searching for cold beer. Finally, Kate emerged from no-man’s land to tell us that Kevin and Daniel were on their way to Tashkent and would meet us later in Bishkek. Rather than camp right by the border, we decided to pack up after dinner and drive onward for an hour to a bush camp. Spectacular moon rise and a field full of crickets…welcome to Kazakhstan!
20 Jun – Early morning as we had breakfast and departed by 7 am. The morning priority was cook group shopping and money exchange so we drove until we found a city that met both needs. Since the black market rate was nonexistent, we figured using an ATM would give us the best rate and took out 2500 Tenge (KZT). Then we wandered around the market and searched for bread (Becky’s cook group needed some for lunch). After a brief lunch stop, we drove all afternoon until we reached the Ruslan campsite at Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve. What a beautiful location! We were told where we could set up our tents and Kate did a head count on how many of us were interested in riding horses versus hiking tomorrow (horse riding please!). After dinner, we celebrated Bjorn’s birthday with cake and drinks and chatted around the camp fire (joined by some German motorcyclists who were also camping nearby). Its amazing how quickly the temperature dropped once we crossed the border from Uzbekistan into Kazakhstan! It was so cold that we had to dig around our locker to search for our snivel gear. Our Turkish ponchos made an appearance (Lars, Becky and Ichi) and were worth every penny.
21 Jun – Almost everyone signed up for either horseback riding or hiking today. Our lunch boxes (provided) were massive so we had to search around for a backpack large enough to carry our picnic. Even though we had been advised that the park rangers would be ready to go at 10 am, it was closer to 11 am when they finally showed up with horses in tow. Robby scored a horse named “ice cream” who loved to run like crazy so he was pretty happy with his ride. Meanwhile, Becky got a gelding that she nicknamed “muncher” or “devil horse”, depending how his mood. He definitely didn’t like being behind other horses, so if they took off running, you could be sure that he would too! The scenery in Aksu-Zhabagly is stunning and mountainous…we sure were happy to be riding instead of hiking. Lunch was at the midway point at a ranger’s small cabin. Brian didn’t bring a lunch and was refusing to eat anything even though several people offered him some food. We had been worried about rain in the forecast but only got a slight drizzle, which made for a fantastic afternoon out in the national park. After lunch, we continued further up the trail and the horses decided to race each other. It was a bit scary for Becky as her stirrups were way too short, which led to severely cramped legs and the inability to control her horse. Once her gelding went from a gallop back down to a canter, she was able to breathe easy again. Our turnaround point was at the 14 km mark, another ranger’s cabin. The ranger pointed out several bears on the mountaintop but without binoculars, they were impossible to make out. Snow leopards remain once of the most elusive creatures at Aksu-Zhabagly, and unsurprisingly, we didn’t spot any. At the turnaround point, Andy and Kyle decided to opt out of riding back. Kyle’s long legs were way too cramped and Andy wasn’t feeling comfortable with his horse. It didn’t take long for Chris and Anthony to step up and swap places. The return ride felt quite long as we were starting to cramp up all over. Poor Brian seemed to have had a crisis on the mountain because he became too weak to walk down on his own so Chris offered up his horse to Brian. We were focused on getting back to our campsite after more than 5 hours on horseback and when we finally dismounted, had to strain not to walk bowlegged! Cook group of Connie, Chris and Conrad made a mean pot of garlic mac and cheese…freaking yum! Delicious meal and we all got to enjoy it together in the communal kitchen area since it was raining cats and dogs outside. The rain was relentless for the majority of the night but we made a break for our tent once it let up a bit.
22 Jun – Goodbye Aksu-Zhabagly! We packed up and left by 8:30 am and drove to Taraz for cook group shopping. Robby scored some size 46 flip flops at the market although it took quite a herculean effort since most sellers didn’t carry anything above 44. The vendors at this market were quite happy to pose for photos, especially in the meat section. Then it was a long afternoon drive out to the next bush camp, our last one before entering into Kyrgyzstan. Since it was Robby’s last chance to dress up as Borat, he took full advantage of the early bush camp to prepare his bin-bag costume. Becky had to approach Kate twice for supplies (tape and magic marker) piquing her interest about what was going on. The surprise was revealed a few minutes later when Borat rocked up at our campsite and gave Kate a full on hug much to her chagrin. Priceless photos ensued! Unfortunately, that wasn’t the highlight of the night. As cook group (Helen, Bjorn and Denise) were preparing a delicious lamb tagine, Michael and Ben were tossing a tennis ball around. Poor Ben tumbled into a ditch while catching the ball and ended up breaking his leg! He probably could have taken a tumble 100 times and come out unscathed 99 times but tonight was his unlucky night. Ant, Chris, Tina, Michael and Kate accompanied him to the hospital along with Kate F and Kyle. The rest of us were literally left on our own in the middle of a remote bush camp. We had a spectacular sunset and then torrential rain started coming down so everyone ran back to their tents to take cover. The rain was crazy enough but then the lightning started kicking in and we were wondering if we’d make it through the night unscathed. One of the more memorable bush camps of this trip to be sure! The hospital gang stayed at the hospital all night long and we waited to see what the morning would bring since tomorrow was supposed to be a border crossing.
23 Jun – Kyle returned with the truck at 7 am and we woke to find a curious Kazakh cowboy camped on a nearby hill staring intently at our campsite. He probably was wondering how the hell we got here and where our horses were! Kyle told us to go ahead and have breakfast and we would swing by the hospital afterwards to pick up Kate and Ben. Ben had apparently broken his leg in two places, and he was going to try to do the border crossing with a leg cast and all. Helen and Ant ran around looking for crutches for Ben (and managed to find some), while Ben painfully eased himself onto the truck. It was a painful maneuver as he had limited mobility and was still in an enormous amount of pain. Thankfully it was a short drive to the border where we crossed near Merke in Kazakhstan and into Chaldovar on the Kyrgyzstan side. Amazingly, Kate managed to convince the border guards to come onto the truck to stamp Ben out of Kazakhstan and they agreed. A grateful Ben exited out of Kazakhstan and entered Kyrgyzstan while on his back the whole time which surely must be a first!