It had been such a good start! The border crossing was comparatively easy, friendly lorry drivers reminded us to put our lights on, the warmest welcome from Edil and family, and almost every car that passed us on the road gave a friendly wave. Well. What followed was 700km of the worst road conditions we have encountered so far. Potholes so big they deserved a name and a postcode, endless unsigned diversions and parallel tracks around roadworks, repairs often just as bad as the potholes they were hiding, and plenty of vehicles all swerving and jostling to avoid the worst of it. The abiding rule of the road is: avoid craters as a priority, even if it means facing down the oncoming traffic. And so even if we happened to have the good side of the road we would still quite often have to scream to a halt to allow a lorry or coach through and past. For 700km. It took 2 camps and 3 more days driving from the farm to reach Almaty, during which time we cracked the windscreen, broke a strut on our awning in a sudden squall, and had to emergency relocate our camp in the middle of the night due to gale force winds. Better yet, on the morning of the third day it rained continuously so that we could no longer tell which potholes to avoid. Mike dubbed this section ‘pothole roulette’. Our relief at reaching fresh tarmac 100km from Almaty was only slightly dampened by the fact that we still couldn’t go much faster due to the sheets of rain pouring down…
Our first stop had to be a garage to fix the windscreen and see about replacing or fudging some kind of repair for the awning. Imagine our amazement when we discovered that Kazakhstan has ARB, and that it is based in Almaty! We were greeted by Dmitriy who spoke excellent English and who, once we’d explained where we’d come from and what we needed, sat us down with a cup of tea. We expected a long wait. Three minutes later he returned holding the part we required for the awning, but apologising that the windscreen repair man they used may take up to two hours to arrive. Less than an hour later we were shaking hands with the team and heading off, Giles all fixed. We are still amazed.
Next stop was to find somewhere to park up for a day so we could explore. As we found in Canada, cities are always a bit of a challenge when it comes to camping, but we had read about a hostel who allowed overlanders to park in their driveway and use the facilities. To the sharp eyed it looked like our track stopped at a fancy hotel but we were just in the tent as usual!
I’ve heard lots of cities referred to as a ‘melting pot’ but you’d be hard pushed to find one more like fondue than Almaty. Understandable, when the tides of tyrants and conquerors have swept back and forth across the land for millennia, and dynasties have been founded and floundered, each contributing a bit of their own culture, identity and genetic material… we spent the entire day just wandering about with a vague list of things to get or do but no real urgency to do any of them. Almaty promotes itself as the ‘city of a thousand colours’ but it could as easily be called the city of a thousand trees or city of a thousand extremely helpful people. One positive legacy of soviet rule is that all the streets are lined with huge trees and almost every other block is given over to park. It’s really lovely, and completely, uniquely Almaty.
The day started with coffee and pastries in a park, then a visit to the state museum (three rooms! Excellent!), followed by a glass of really good wine, a bit more wandering and chance arrival at the Soviet-erected war memorial (harrowing), the cathedral (gorgeous) and eventually the Green market (fabulous chaos). Once we’d stocked up on a range of spices we didn’t know we needed, dried fruit and snacks we definitely didn’t, and camel sausage (which was obviously essential) we headed up Green Hill/Kok Tobe for a beer and a view of the city.
The next morning we had a thorough sort out and check over of the vehicle whilst we waited for our host to get up so we could pay him. Giles was completely filthy – caked in a month’s worth of mud and silt and sand – and part of the front drive shaft had a slightly concerning wobble. After consulting Yoda we decided it would be best to get him checked at a garage, but also stopped for an opportunistic wash on the way (don’t worry, we tipped them well!). Toyota Almaty had Giles up on a lift in no time and the mechanic took even less time to pronounce him ‘like new’. Wanting more reassurance we explained our planned route to the service manager, during which time several other mechanics came over for a good look too. He staked Toyota Almaty’s reputation upon Giles being in perfect condition to continue so, a little later than planned, we departed this fabulous city with a determination to come back one day.
Thanks to: the team at ARB for such good service; Toyota Almaty for your reassurance!