Kazakhstan – Through the steppe
I had to cross Kazakhstan in the west from south to north. To get to Aqtau, the Kazakh port city on the Caspian Sea. And to take the ferry there. Because I could not drive through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the Caspian Sea because of my drone.
My route in the west of Kazakhstan
It was a long distance, about 3.200 km in total. From the border with Kyrgyzstan in the south to Aktobe, almost at the Russian border. And from there southwest again to Aqtau.
I had already left the Kazakh border behind me by noon, the road was good and so was the weather.
So I decided to drive on that day to Taraz, the first bigger city in Kazakhstan. The foothills of the Kyrgyz mountains accompanied me for a while.
The next morning I started quite early again. Because I wanted to visit the mausoleum of Aisha Bibi very close to the city of Taraz.
Two small medieval buildings from the 11th or 12th century, set in pretty gardens. And because I was there so early, I was also the only visitor.
The legend tells that Aisha Bibi wanted to visit her lover. Despite a ban from her parents. On the way there she died by a snake bite. Today many couples visit the mausoleum on the day of their wedding, because it is said to bring good luck.
Now the route led only through steppe or dried up swamps. And that stayed the same until Aktobe. In this respect, there are unfortunately not so nice pictures as from Kyrgyzstan. Because the landscape was pretty monotonous.
Around noon I reached Shymkent, the third largest city in Kazakhstan. With about one million residents. I wanted to visit a Toyota garage there. Because I had the feeling that my air conditioning not worked properly.
I should have better not done that. Because suddenly I found myself in a traffic mess. You can watch a scene of that in the video below. And the air conditioner was not broken either. It just couldn’t cope with the heat outside.
Back on the highway I noticed something interesting. From Shymkent on, it was no longer just called M 32 in the Kazakh numbering. It was also called E 38, a European international highway in Central Asia. From the Ukraine to Kazakhstan.
Because there was nothing to discover in the landscape, I tried culture. For this purpose I stayed overnight in Turkistan. In order to visit the museum complex there the next morning before continuing my trip.
Turkistan was a center of the caravan trade in Kazakhstan. And there is also a mausoleum, an old bath house and remains of a city wall.
Best known is the mausoleum of Khawaja Ahmed Yasawi, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Yasawi was a poet and preacher who introduced Islam to the people along the Silk Road Central Asia in the 12th century.
Because it took me almost half a day to visit this whole area, I only got 300 km to the next larger city, Kyzylorda, by evening.
Behind Kyzylorda I let my drone fly again on a parking lot at the highway. But even the view from above only showed steppe.
Baikonur, spaceport in Kazakhstan
I was very happy to notice that the next town on the highway is Baikonur. Since 1957 Russian spaceport. I absolutely wanted to have a look at that. I had imagined it to be something like the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Even from the highway I could see some antenna systems, which probably belong to the cosmodrome.
But unfortunately other travelers told me at a roadhouse that the Baikonur Cosmodrome could not be visited. And one would also not be allowed to enter the small town of Baikonur 20 km west of it.
This was an important information for me. Because I actually wanted to spend the night there. Luckily I had not already booked a hotel.
At the entrance of the spaceport I was informed that permits in Astana are only issued for rocket launches. And a ticket should cost about 8,000 US dollars.
The city of Baikonur is surrounded by a wall. Even there, you are only allowed to enter at a checkpoint if you have the necessary papers. Russia has leased the whole area from Kazakhstan until at least 2050.
Too bad, so I had to check off this highlight.
At least I filled up my car tank at a gas station outside the city before I left. At a petrol pump, which according to the label came from Germany or Austria. Of course the printed Euro and Cent were not valid. The billing was in Kazakh tenge. One liter of diesel cost 160 tenge, about 0.50 US dollars.
Aral, a town without a lake
No, Aral does not mean the German fuel brand now. But the Kazakh town, 230 km north of Baikonur. In Russian also named Aralsk.
Until there I drove on in the afternoon. A group of camels came towards me. All of them were walking along the road. Only the boss thought that the road was his and bleated annoyingly when I passed him.
Aral is located near the (salt) lake of the same name. The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake on earth. And the city of Aral was located on its shore. But it has almost dried up during the last 60 years.
Since Google Maps did not show me a route to the lakeshore, I did not drive there. I didn’t want to drive across the countryside without knowing the nature of the ground. Because it is said to be highly contaminated by salt, heavy metals and pesticides.
So the city of Aral was just a place to stay for a night. A reservation in advance had not been possible, so I tried my luck in a motel at the street.
I was told that the single rooms were fully booked and I was led into a living room. So I thought. Okay, I’ll sleep there. Only later did I realize that this was not a living room at all. It was a kind of dormitory with 8 beds. And they were all occupied until 10 pm… Whoever these travelers were…
I did not take a shower in the shared shower and set off early the next morning. Because the further route did not offer any interesting sights I wanted to do the 620 km to Aktobe in one day.
Only oncoming cars with fully loaded roof racks were worth seeing that day. They probably came from Russia.
And now and then there was a small salt lake beside of the road.
In the afternoon I arrived in Aktobe. But it took me another hour until I reached my accommodation. Google Maps didn’t know the right place again and said “You have reached your destination.” Are you kidding me? I stood in front of a half dilapidated apartment block with broken windows.
So first of all I parked the car and walked around asking for the right place. A kind passer-by then helped me. The small pension was quite close, but still around a few corners. Maybe the streets here had been renamed or the house numbers had changed. Anyway, the Landcruiser finally stood in the yard, directly in front of the entrance of the small pension.
An unique bar
The bar in the basement, where breakfast was served the next morning, was interesting.
Either the time of the Soviet Union was not yet over here. Or the room had been intentionally styled in a ‘retro’ look.
But maybe they only wanted to please older citizens 😉
Anyhow, Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev smiled from the walls.
There were newspaper clippings of Russian Olympic victories and picture frames with Russian awards and medals.
And an equipments from the 60s: Radios, accordions, calculators, telephones, televisions. Just everything that was (perhaps) used by the working people of the glorious Soviet Union at that time 😉
In the northwest of Kazakhstan
Already near Aral there was a place with the nice name “Aralsul’fat”. And now here at Aktobe there are places with pretty names like “Chromtau”, “Nikel’tau” and “Progress”. Here dominated the ores and oil industry.
I headed towards the southwest. I wouldn’t be able to make the whole distance to Aqtau in one day (1,200 km). And so I set myself the first 550 km as my goal for the day. To the village of Kulsary.
Already the first part was a regional road. Significantly worse than the previous highway. But at least I still made good progress here.
But behind the village of Mukur I ended up on a fourth or fifth order road. It was built on a dam across the terrain and may have once been a main road to the Caspian Sea. But surely nothing had been repaired here since 1955.
Deep potholes only allowed a speed of 10 to 25 km/h. And I couldn’t avoid them either, as they were spread over the entire width of the road.
At some point I changed to one of the tracks next to the ‘street’. Here it didn’t go much faster, but at least the axles and tire suspension were spared.
While driving there I only had to keep an eye on the course of the road dam in order not to lose my direction. This went on for a few hours until it got dark.
The sunset was steadily approaching. I drove some more kilometers on the ‘road’, but in the end it was over. Without endangering the Landcruiser I couldn’t get any further in the dark.
A night in the Kazakh steppe
This was the second time after my ‘get lost’ in Mongolia, that I had doubts whether I would make it home.
But doubts didn’t get me any further now. I stopped at a fork in the road, put the car as far as possible next to the road and had to wait for the end of the night.
I did not want to camp in my tent because there were camels running around. And I wanted to avoid that one of them chose my tent as its sleeping place. While I’m sleeping in it. So once again there was only an uncomfortable dozing on the driver’s seat.
I was somewhere in the steppe of Kazakhstan. And I did not know how the further path would be. Moreover, I had already seen many burnt areas to the right and the left of the ‘road’. The only escape route in a bush fire would have been this ‘road’. Not very relaxing.
And on to Aqtau
Of course, I was awake at 5 a.m. at sunrise. And I drove on immediately. In daylight that wasn’t a problem on the track next to the road. After a short time I reached Kulsary and thereby the main road again. Now the last 675 km to Aqtau were no problem at all.
Only a few hours later, my former colleague, who was tracking my road trip with the GPS tracker, asked whether I had switched to a submarine 😉 Of course not!
But on my way I came through the Karagiye depression, the lowest point in Kazakhstan, 132m below sea level.
In the evening I reached Aktau. And discovered that Google Maps had only shown me the shortest route. If I had made a detour of between 150 and 300 kilometers (depending on the route), I would only have taken perfectly developed roads…
Aqtau, Kazakhstan’s port city on the Caspian Sea
As a precaution, I had already booked an accommodation for 4 nights. Because here I had to try to get a ferry ticket for my Landcruiser and me to Azerbaijan.
I already knew from the Internet that this is not so easy here. There are ferries, but they do not operate according to a schedule. But only if there is enough load. So the following day I started my search for the shipping company. Because there are no street names in Aqtau. The addresses consist of a number for the district, a second for the block and a third for the apartment.
After a lot of searching I finally found the ticket office. And when I asked for a ferry I got a refusal right away. Today there would be no more ferry. I should come back again tomorrow and ask again.
The employee spoke no English, only Kazakh and Russian. So we used a translation software.
Well, I was back the following day. I knew the way now. And I met almost the same people as the day before. This time it was said ‘yes, there is a ferry tonight. But there are not enough cars and freight here in Aqtau. It is not worth it for the ferry to start from here. The ferry continues on to Kuryk, another port city nearby, and loads railroad cars’.
So I had some time at least to look around in the city.
To wait in Kazakhstan or to drive via Russia?
But I was faced with a decision. My visa for Kazakhstan was still valid for 14 days. If there is a ferry by then, no problem. But if not, I would have to go via Russia to Azerbaijan.
For the last option I would need a new Russian visa. And I can only get that in Germany. So I talked to my German visa agent in the evening by phone.
He said that I should send him my passport and a visa application immediately. He would then get the visa. And in 14 days my passport and visa should be back with me in Kazakhstan.
Express delivery with DHL the next morning cost 150 US dollars, but I didn’t care. Somehow I needed an alternative to the ferry. It was good that I had two passports, so I could send one away without any concerns. At the same time I also extended the hotel stay by 3 more nights.
Only 10 minutes after my passport was picked up by DHL, the ferry office called me. I should be at the port at 4 pm. Tonight a ship would leave.
So I had paid in vain for the passport delivery and the hotel stay extension. And I didn’t get back the money later either. But that can happen on a trip like this. The only important thing was that I got out of Kazakhstan in good time before my visa expired.
In the port of Aqtau
In the afternoon I drove to the port. First I had to go there to the Border Control and to pay 10.000 Tenge (almost 95 US dollars) for the use of the port facilities. And another 5,000 Tenge to the officer for ??? I ask for what, but did not get a real answer.
The next step was at the customs, which checked the Landcruiser. And asked me for a bottle of whiskey. I made it clear to the officers that I don’t have that. Because I have to drive every day.
In the evening, I was finally able to buy my ticket at the shipping company’s counter. 29,000 tenge, about 230 US dollars. But that was only the price for my own transportation. The transportation of the Landcruiser should be paid later in Azerbaijan.
At midnight we were finally allowed to go on board of the ship. But there was still a problem before that. I had to go back to Border Control because the officer who collected the 5,000 tenges forgot a stamp in my papers.
I got the stamp there – and my money back. As I learned later, a young American, who also had to pay the 5,000 Tenge, had complained to the supervisor…
On the ferry from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan
After trucks, cars and motorcycles were parked in the lower deck of the ferry, we all had to come into a salon and hand in our passports. I did not like that at all, but it seems to be common that way on board of ferries. Later, on the ferry across the Black Sea, it was exactly the same. Is this actually the case with cruise ships as well?
I am talking to the young man from the USA. He had worked in China and from there he came to Kazakhstan by public transport. Now he wants to travel through the Caucasus and then fly back home from Tbilisi (Georgia).
I also meet a young couple from Belgium with old Enfield motorbikes which they had bought in India. They had worked in Nepal for a year and now they wanted to go home too. However, they were in a hurry. Because just 3 weeks later they had to fly from Belgium to South America. To start their next job there.
We went to sleep at 4 a.m. It’s a short night because breakfast is already at 8 a.m. Well, we have now left Kazakhstan. And the Azerbaijani ferry company is responsible for us. Of course we are no longer allowed to get off the ship anymore.
But we didn’t start either. All day long we stayed in the port of Aktau. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it had something to do with the weather.
Finally we are on our way – But only to the next port
The Merkuri-1 departs at 6 p.m. But after just 4 hours the journey is already over again. And we anchor in front of the port of Kuryk, 80 km south of Aqtau. Now we’ve been on board for almost 24 hours and haven’t really gotten very far.
Because there is a storm on the Caspian Sea. And we can’t go any further. The shipping company probably doesn’t want to take any risks either. The vessel was built in Yugoslavia in 1984 and doesn’t really have much draft. In 2002 its sister ship, the Merkuri-2, had already sunk in a storm. 43 people died and only 9 people were rescued that time.
When I got up the next morning it was raining and stormy. My son wrote me that this weather will probably last another 2 days. That were bad views. I ask a crew member when he expect the voyage will continue. The answer was: “Maybe in 2 minutes, in 2 hours or in 2 days…”
There are 3 meals a day on board. However, they are not exactly something for gourmets. I liked tea and pastries best, which were served every afternoon in the cabin corridor. And in the cabin it was warm and there were a hot shower.
Bye bye Kazakhstan
One day later we finally started in the morning after breakfast. But now really fast, with 13 ½ knots, that is about 25 km/h. The captain probably wants to make up for lost time. And in the evening already the Azerbaijani coast was in sight.
The weather is also very nice again. So that I can take some pretty pictures of the sunset in the Caspian Sea that evening.
Nevertheless, it still takes us until the next morning to moor in Alat, a port city 80 kilometers south of Baku. What was actually planned as an 18-hour ferry trip across the Caspian Sea has finally turned into a 3 ½ days voyage on board of the ferry.
There is another breakfast, but before that we have to clear our cabins at 6 a. m. They should be cleaned for the return trip to Kazakhstan.
After breakfast we got back our passports. And the first inspection by the Azerbaijani Border Control also takes place on the ferry.
I had applied for my visa online already at the hotel in Kazakhstan and then printed it out there. So there were no problems here.
A little later we are allowed to leave the ship with our cars. And to drive to the border control station near the exit from the customs area. But here too it was necessary to be a little bit patient first.
In the port of Alat
First I was sent over a pedestrian bridge to the other side of the customs area, which is actually the exit side from Azerbaijan. There the containers with the offices of the different companies and authorities were located.
In the container of the shipping company I had to pay 300 US dollars for the car transport. Was it due to tax reasons that this was not collected in Kazakhstan? In the container of the port authority 7 US dollars had to be paid for the use of the port. I had already gotten cash in Kazakhstan. Because I knew from the Internet that you have to pay cash here.
With the receipts I returned to the border checkpoint. Only to be sent right back again. This time to pay 21 US dollars for the use of the roads in Azerbaijan. This is also a possibility how you can spend your time in the morning. And I had to find out each time which container is the right one. Because I could not read anything.
In the end there was a short confusion about my German passport and the Australian car registration at the border control station. But fortunately I was able to clear that up quickly.
Entry to Azerbaijan
Finally all formalities are done. The only thing missing is the liability insurance for the Landcruiser. But since there is no insurance office in the port, I was supposed to get it in Baku.
Then I was allowed to drive with the Landcruiser to the turnpike. There was only a short view at the papers and on the backseat of the car. All the officers were interested in was my ruedi-retyres sticker. Nothing else. They were not even interested in my drone or my luggage.
Between all the parked trucks I looked for the exit from the port area. There I got a few more stamps on the various forms.
At noon I am in Azerbaijan. And about my experiences there I will report in my next blog post.
Cheers, Ruediger 😎
Notes on the videos
The video of the ‘driver’s view’ is a little bit longer (3m 14s, 601MB; music: Tucson – Silent Partner/YouTube Audiolibrary). So it’s best to watch it via WiFi. The scenes are recorded in/at
- a drone flight on a parking lot near Kyzylorda
- the adventurous road trip from Aktobe to Aqtau
- Aqtau and in the port there
- and in the port of Alat
And as always here is the link to my YouTube video from 2019
By the way: Without any further long detours later on, I have already done more than half of my road trip from Australia to Germany at this point. And actually I have been here in Europe already. Because the Ural River flows northeast of Aktau into the Caspian Sea.
Therefore perhaps also the designation of an European international highway to Shymkent. But historically and culturally Europe is defined differently than geologically and geographically. And therefore I will assign my trip through the Caucasus to Asia as well.