So much to tell you about the last week or so! However, what is important to mention right now is that we are seated in a watering hole in Barnaul and there are drinks and shots and dishes of food flying at us from all corners of the establishment! The locals and patrons here are so friendly and want us to eat and drink their national favourites. Someone even sent the live musician to our table for a special song. It has happened in so many places! It’s very humbling and we have been taught a great lesson in hospitality while in Russia and Kazakhstan.
Anyway, back to the correct timeline, the last time we posted we had had a good night out in Turkestan and were only one night away from Almaty… after using every minute of the midday check out from the hotel in Turkestan we spent all afternoon and evening driving, about 10km from our planned stop and with the sun starting to touch the horizon we picked up a horrid great screw in one of our new tyres. Fortunately our sleeping spot for the night was flat and had a lovely mountain view (mountains!!) but that was it because it was also covered in goat poop, locusts, spiders and massive ants that would bite! Richard was forced to face his insect demons and lay down amongst said insects in an attempt to plug the hissing hole while the wheel was in situ. When this didn’t work and we had to remove the wheel to make the repair was when things really got interesting! After lifting the car enough to remove the wheel the jack started sinking back in to the ground so after we celebrated Richard’s first successful tyre plug we realised the axel was nearly on the dirt and we couldn’t get the wheel back on. The only option left, now in the dark and by light of one head torch, was to empty the car and extract the air jack from the darkest depths of our storage options. The story goes on but it was 3 hours, a lot of aggressive bugs and much dirt later when we were all back in one piece and putting the tent up.
We arrived in Almaty, amazed that it can take 5 days to cover only a portion of one country and very ready for a shower, clean clothes and clean sheets! We spent two nights at European Backpackers sleeping in the noisy street but enjoying a lot of time with other overlanders and travellers with myriad stories to tell and laughs to share. We picked up the essentials… 6 litres of oil, a filter and a sump plug and departed for some long awaited sightseeing.
We reached Kolsai Lake number one a little late (actually a lot late) and so we weren’t able to do the 6-7 hour walk to the second lake which was disappointing but still managed an hour or so around the edge of the first one where some friendly locals insist we try some of their freshly fried bread which was totally delicious! After checking out some of the nearby “guesthouses” in Saty we opted for a steep 4×4 track down to a rocky river bed and slept there instead… the rushing water from the surprisingly large river provided some excellent white noise and for the first time felt truly hidden away. The next day we headed for Kaindy Lake and its underwater forest… it was spectacular and we again met so many friendly Kazakh people wanting photos of us and the truck. Even without the unique lake the track up to the mountains was really great fun and we realised just how long it had been since we had put the truck through some of its paces and enjoyed a small bit of technical challenge. Was worth it for the drive alone!
From there we collected some Norwegian backpackers/hitchhikers and made tracks for Charyn Canyon… the jewel in the crown I think. We asked our hitchhikers to walk in to the canyon for safety as we had read the track in to the canyon was “hairy” and we were not disappointed! The first few hundred metres was super steep, lumpy, bendy and narrow. Of course the truck handled it with ease but the climb back out the next day made me weep a tiny bit at the top. When you can only see the sky and you don’t know if you have the power or grip to carry all our weight up and over the edge things get tense! For me. Not the other one of course.
We came across a sizeable crew from Discover Earth who were very keen to film us and our car on a number of occasions… not sure if that means we will become TV stars but no one asked us if we wanted to partake!
Our night in the canyon was one of the most memorable and after a further few days of hot and dusty trails we were willing to try anything to get refreshed and clean so it was a dip in the fast flowing waters of the Charyn River, our first experience! We entered the icy water breathless and cursing but exited feeling very alive, snap frozen and clean as a whistle… we dressed with numb skin and enjoyed a small camp fire set off by an intense moonlight that had me up most of the night gazing at the blue lit canyon walls.
While in the canyon Richard was told about a singing dune, a white mountain and a town called Basshi. Eventually we put the broken pieces of English together and decided we would go and have a look… the warning words of “bad road” really didn’t cut it! I’m not sure it was worth seeing given how awful the drive was through the Altyn Emel park but I can’t deny it was unique and picturesque so each to their own.
After sleeping the night next to a 700 year old willow tree, that Genghis Khan touched when he visited the area, it was time to get serious and head back towards Russia. We were 2 days behind schedule and we hadn’t known how much worse the roads would become. Let’s go with ‘roads in name only and not actual roads’, remnants of what used to be a road and possibly more like driving on the moon than planet earth. After three plus days of continuous driving in these conditions the front suspension started making some worrying noises, we were physically and mentally exhausted and I had nearly rearranged my face on the dashboard a number of times!
Tonight though, we are set to depart Barnaul, Russia in the morning where we have had the front anti roll bar bushes done on the truck (no booking necessary and for less than a quarter of the price in the UK!). We have done 10 more tonnes of laundry, some personal beautification, lots of photo uploading, supermarket shopping so on and so on and so on… chores chores chores! We are aimed at Lake Baikal but that is 5 to 6 days from here so we’ll update you in a week or so.