Sälem Qazaqstan – Hello Kazakhstan
3,000 kilometers through the east of Kazakhstan.
From the border initially further to the west. But later again to the south. Because I had spoken to some young people in Germany before I left (link in German only). They had advised me to definitely visit Kyrgyzstan on my tour. And that’s just in the southeast of Kazakhstan.
But at the same time I wanted to see Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. And there I wanted to have an inspection of the Landcruiser carried out there, which is necessary every 10.000 km.
In this respect my route to Germany would certainly have been much shorter if I had only driven west. But as it was, I drove from the Russian border via Semei and Pavlodar to Astana. And from there south again via Karaganda to the Lake Balkhash. Almaty, a great canyon and two lakes near the Kyrgyz border were my last stops in the east of Kazakhstan.
Immediate trouble in Kazakhstan
With around 160 km from Rubtsovsk in Russia to Semei in Kazakhstan, I thought I had done everything right this time when I crossed the border. And the route to Semei through pretty boring bushland was also done quickly.
But then the problems started. At first I couldn’t find the hotel in Semei that I booked through my app. I stopped because Google Maps claimed that it was only 200m away. But I didn’t see it.
So I wanted to drive around the block again. But as soon as I was back on the street, I was stopped by the city police. I guess it was something like the regulatory office in Germany. With a watchful eye on the moving and stationary traffic…
The officers kept pointing at my headlights. And after they had inspected my passport they said something about fine. Then I noticed that after the stop I forgot to turn on the headlights again. And that is the rule in most countries. Even during the day in the most beautiful sunshine. They wanted to fine me 5,000 tenge, that’s about 15 UD dollars.
Since I hadn’t changed any money yet, I first asked them for leniency. “BI just arrived in Kazakhstan…“. “I haven’t been to a bank yet to change money…“. “I have no Kazakh cash yet…“. But it didn’t help. They wanted to take me to a bank. There I should exchange money and pay the fine in cash right now.
But I didn’t want to make it that easy for them either. So I asked them to talk to their supervisor by radiotelephony. And behold, after my conversation with their supervisor the fine was only 2,400 tenge, about 7 US dollars.
But also help to find my hotel
Seit diesem Tag habe ich abends einen Zettel auf den Fahrersitz gelegt “Licht an!” Denn im Gegensatz zu anderen Autos schalten sich die Lichter des Landcruisers nicht automatisch ein, wenn der Motor gestartet wird.
I still agreed with the supervisor that they would bring me to the hotel after the bank visit and payment. And he agreed to that too. Actually that was good, in that time they could not cash in any other poor Kazakh traffic offender 😉
When they dropped me off at the hotel I also saw why I hadn’t found it before. It was behind a dense row of trees and there were only Cyrillic letters on the hotel front.
Astana, capital of Kazakhstan
The main roads in eastern Kazakhstan were still under construction. And so it took me 7 hours the next day for the 350 km to Pavlodar. And another day later towards Astana I needed for the first 100 km 4 hours. Always driving on a track next to the road to be built. Often in a line of many other cars.
The closer I got to Astana the better the roads got. And in front of the hotel I was allowed to park right in front of the main entrance. Because the height of the Landcruiser did not fit into the parking garage. And also not through a gate to the parking lot behind the hotel.
One word about Astana. The city became the capital of Kazakhstan only in 1997. Until then it was Almaty. One reason for the relocation was probably the earthquake danger in Almaty. Another was perhaps the prevention of separatist tendencies in the area around Astana, which is mainly inhabited by Russians.
The city has also changed its name several times. It was called Akmolinsk, Zelinograd, Aqmola and from 1998 to 2019 it was called Astana. In 2018 the 20th anniversary was just celebrated. But since 2019 it is now called Nur-Sultan, after a former president. But I’m staying here with Astana, because that’s what the city was called in 2018 when I visited it.
With Romanian scientists in the surroundings of Astana
In the afternoon, I met a group of Romanian scientists in front of the hotel who had studied the effects of climate change on plants in Siberia. And now they were on their way home. They invited me to explore the surroundings of Astana with them the next day. I wasn’t that interested in the plants, but it was a good opportunity for me to see something without having to drive.
In the city center of Astana
During a city walk through the center and a city tour with a red double-decker bus (yes, you can get one here) in the following days, I noticed the many different buildings and construction styles. After the decision to make the city the capital of Kazakhstan, many international architects were invited to let off steam with their ideas. Many people I’ve talked to like the more historic Almaty better. But I have to say, I consider Astana a very impressive city. Have a look at some pictures.
Wellness for the Landcruiser
The friendly check-in crew at the hotel had arranged an inspection appointment for me for the car. And they also gave me the exact address of the Toyota garage. So I brought the car there the next day and was pleasantly surprised. The garage was styled just like any Toyota workshop in Australia. And there were also some employees who spoke English.
After only 4 hours the inspection was done and the car was even washed. Only the diesel filter could not be changed there because the spare part was not in stock. I should ask again in a workshop in Almaty. And I guess I wouldn’t have got a workshop visit in Australia or Germany for less than 85,000 tenge (250 UD dollar) either.
Surprise in Karaganda
Via Karaganda I went on to Lake Balkhash. Not to be confused with Lake Baikal in Russia! Again through hundreds of kilometers through the Kazakh steppe.
In Karaganda there were problems with my hotel booking in the evening for the first time. At the check-in the booking via the app was not accepted. And I should pay cash. I didn’t want to do that, because the amount had already been debited from my credit card through the app. So I first called the hotline in Frankfurt. From there, Russian-speaking staff contacted the hotel. But they couldn’t do anything either.
At some point the hotel owner came in person and clarified the situation. The hotel had only recently been connected to the booking system. And nobody knew how the incoming bookings worked. But I finally got my room at no double costs. And the booking portal later reimbursed my telephone costs to Germany without any problems. Around 150 US dollar, a multiple of the accommodation costs…
And further on to Lake Balkhash
On the way to the Lake Balkhash I met a German couple who wanted to drive from Kazakhstan to the Pamir Highway with their VW minibus. But first we spent some days together at the lake.
The designated campsite did not exist, and so we parked our cars directly on the western shore of the lake. Several locals have already camped there. A few days later we moved a few kilometers further south. There should also be a campsite in a small village. But even that one was either closed or no longer existed.
Instead, someone spoke to us in German in the village. It turned out that it was a Kazakh who lived in Germany for a while and was visiting his homeland. He immediately accommodated us at his relatives’ house. And the next day he took us on a little tour out on the lake in his motorboat.
Never without an insurance
I learned from him by chance in the evening that it is also urgently necessary in Kazakhstan to take out a liability insurance for the car. I had already asked at the border, but there they said that it would be also possible to drive without a liability insurance. That’s why I hadn’t paid any attention to this topic for the last 12 days. It’s a good thing that the police in Semei didn’t ask about the insurance!
Because driving around in these countries without any insurance is probably one of the most expensive offenses when you get caught.
Taking out insurance the next day was an adventure. I drove a few kilometers to the next small town. A young man was waiting for me at the entrance of the village, whom our “German” Kazakh had asked by phone to take me to the insurance office.
This office was in a private home. And there an elderly woman tried for 3 hours to get an insurance printout with my details from the computer. Without success. Something did not work with my name or the Australian registration.
Finally she emailed the process to the headquarter in Astana and received a completed form back from there. All she had to do was print it out, stamp it and sign it. After 4 hours I was finally released at 4 pm with an insurance policy. I could not read it, but it was pretty colorful with a stamp and a signature.
My learning: Definitely ask persistently at the borders for an insurance office nearby!
Further on to Almaty, the former capital in the south
Of course I didn’t make it to Almaty before dark that afternoon. Although it was only about 370 km. But here, too, the road was largely under construction. And accordingly slow was the progress on the track.
When it got dark I stayed behind a truck. So that I don’t dazzle the oncoming vehicles with my headlights for left-hand traffic. Because they complain very clearly about my lighting with flashing lights.
At some point it no longer made sense to continue driving. But I couldn’t just get off the track beside the road. Because there was nothing but this road. No tree, no bushes, no exit to the right or left. So I decided to stay in the parking lot of the next gas station between several trucks.
This overnight stay is one of two on the whole trip that I spent extremely uncomfortably in the car on the front seats. Because the rest of the car was fully packed. And I didn’t want to set up a tent here either.
So I wake up at 4:30 am early in the morning the next day. When it gets light. That had the advantage that I can made quick progress the last 80 km to Almaty. Although it had started to rain. Because here also the road is better again. And I am at a Toyota workshop already at seven o’clock in the morning to ask for the diesel filter. It was changed in 10 minutes and I was able to make my way to the city.
Babylonian confusion of languages
Almaty is located on the northern edge of the Tian-Shan mountains with peaks of up to 7,400 meters high, which extend over parts of China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Here is a little overview of the confusion of terms I had to deal with in the various brochures and on the Internet for the Tian-Shan Mountains. Tienschan and Tien Schan (German), Tian Shan (‘Heavenly Mountains’, Chinese), Tjan Schan (Kyrgyz and Russian), Tengri Tagh (Uighur) and Tengir-Too (based on certain high peaks), Celestial Mountains and Heavenly Mountains (English).
And this was similar with places, rivers, landscapes and city names. In this area there were always different names for an object on the map. In German, English, Russian, Chinese, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Iranian… And above all often in Cyrillic letters.
The reason for this is that all of Central Asia from the Caspian Sea to the Gobi Desert was originally an area called Turkistan (Land of the Turks). In the last few centuries, sometimes China expanded its influence to the Lake Balkhash, sometimes Russia expanded its influence until Mongolia.
And with the establishment of the small nation states after the collapse of the Soviet Union, each ethnic group then stuck to the names in their own language. Difficult for travelers!
Almaty, city of apple trees
Like Astana, Almaty was also renamed. Until 1993 the city was called Alma-Ata, which means ‘city of apple trees’. While I come from the northeastern Kazakh steppe there is a lot of green around Almaty due to its location. And of course gardens and plantations.
Although the city was the capital of Kazakhstan until 1997 there are not as many new buildings and skyscrapers as in Astana. Instead, there are more smaller and older buildings from the Soviet era. That somehow makes the city cozier. And maybe the many cultural and scientific institutions that are based here also contribute to this.
For one day my step counter on my cell phone showed me 27,000 steps in the evening. But unfortunately my tour in the city was not as pleasant as I had imagined. Because there were construction sites in almost every street. Most of the time the sidewalks were torn open. Maybe only the few summer months can be used here for building and construction work.
A cathedral made entirely of wood and a local hill
It was the same with one of the city’s landmarks, the Ascension Cathedral or, according to its builder, Zenkov Cathedral. It was almost completely covered because it was being renovated. It’s a pity, I would have liked to have a look at this building, which is built entirely of fir wood from Tian Shan without any nail.
Before I continued my trip I was still on top of Kok-Tobe Hill, the local mountain of Almaty. You can reach it either by road or by cable car from the city center. Besides a great view over the city in good weather, there is an amusement park, restaurants and the city’s television tower. But unfortunately it is not accessible for visitors.
Charyn National Park
230 kilometers east of Almaty, on the way to the Kyrgyz border, is the Charyn National Park located. And its main attraction is Charyn Canyon. The river of the same name has dug it into the red sandstone there.
I got the tip from a former colleague. And the detour was really worth it. Although much smaller than the Grand Canyon in the USA, it looks almost the same. And it is equally attractive.
The best thing is: You can drive your car into the canyon from above. That means, if your car is not too big. And I had some problems with the Landcruiser. Because shortly before you can stay overnight at the bottom of the canyon you have to pass a ‘gate’ made of boulders. And here it was hard work to get the car through.
But with the help from a German couple, whom I took down with their luggage from above, and a park employee, who also took a ride on the running board of my car, it worked. In the YouTube video below you can watch this scene.
Two lakes in the southeast of Kazakhstan
The German couple wanted to go on to two lakes nearby. To the Kaindy Lake and the Kolsai Lake. For me it wasn’t a big detour to the Kyrgyz border and so we decided to go there together.
Because apart from Lake Balkhash, the Tian-Shan Mountains near Almaty and the Charyn Canyon, Kazakhstan has so far not had much to offer in terms of scenic charm.
The Kaindy Lake is located at almost 1,900 m in a mountain range of the Tian-Shan. At first it was still possible to get there on roads. Later we drove on a dirt road and through a river. We then had to walk the last few hundred meters because the path ended.
But it was worth it. Dead Tian-Shan spruce trees stand in the middle of the lake. And the whole place looks like an enchanted place in the forest. This is also due to the creation of the lake. An earthquake and a landslide blocked the way of the water into the gorge. And now rainwater collects here without being able to run off again.
At the edge of the lake there was a roofed barbecue and rest area. A group of young Kazakhs was already celebrating here and they invited us straight away. But unfortunately I had to refuse their offer to try some of the 15l(!) vodka (3 plastic canisters of 5l each), bottled at the manufacturer. Because I had to drive on immediately. 0,0‰ in Kazakhstan. One of the young people even spoke German. He was an actor at a theater in Vienna and on a visit back home.
In addition, we also wanted to leave gradually. It started to thunderstorm and rain. And to walk through Kazakh forests in a thunderstorm, I didn’t feel like doing that.
It was only 30 km to the Kolsai Lake. But there we only got to the first Kolsai Lake by car. Because there are three Kolsai Lakes in total, which are located in distances one behind the other. But the two more distant ones can only be reached walking. And for the walk from lake 1 to lake 3 and back you need at least one day.
Too bad that the weather was not cooperative now. It remained cloudy and rainy the next day. However, we were lucky with our accommodation. The options at the end of the street, right on the lakeshore, were not very inviting and, moreover, quite expensive.
But my fellow travellers had made themselves smart and knew that there was an accommodation on a mountain about 500m higher. So we headed for it, on an adventurous single-lane dirt road through the forest up the mountain.
Especially funny on this way was the prohibition of overtaking (to be seen in the video towards the end). Together with a speed limit of 40km/h. Neither you could drive faster than 20km/h max. Not to mention overtaking. I would also not have known how to avoid oncoming traffic. But I was lucky – there was no car coming towards us.
By the way, not even the next day, when I was traveling alone again on my way towards the Kyrgyz border. Because my companions wanted to hike a little more in the mountains.
The small town of Kegen is just 25km away from the Kyrgyz border. There I wanted to spend the last night before the border crossing. I found a small place to stay. Up to then I think it was the cheapest accommodation of my trip. 6 US dollar for the overnight stay. Without breakfast.
But I didn’t need that either. Because that night, when I arrived in Kegen, I have got a pretty severe diarrhea. That’s why there isn’t a single picture of Kegen! I had better things to do than to walk around the village and take photos 😂
Either in the Charyn Canyon or at the Kolsai Lake I must have got a gastrointestinal virus. Probably in the Charyn Canyon. Because later I learned from other travelers who were down there with me that they too had had stomach problems. And we all had a tasty salad buffet there that evening…
Anyway, I spent the night on the toilet rather than in bed. And in the morning I was quite happy that a German couple asked me if I could take them with me to Karakol, the first city of Kyrgyzstan. That night 4 other German travelers in total stayed overnight in the boarding house in Kegen. So if I were to fail as a driver, someone else could still drive…
Towards the Kyrgyz border
The distance from Kegen to the Kyrgyz border is short, around 25km. But also this road was just und construction and so we sometimes had to drive on a track again. Finally we came to a tiny little border crossing. Because this road is one of the few connections between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
And it is only about 2.000m high. In one of the few lower lying areas of the Tian-Shan mountains.
In the following video (3m 30s; music: The Creek – Topher Mohr and Alex Elena / YouTube Audio Library) you can see as always the perspective from the car and from the drone. To make orientation easier for you, here are some hints about the clips:
- Kazakh border – Semei
- Towards and in Astana
- Lake Balkhash
- Towards Almaty and outskirts of the city
- Almaty – Charyn Canyon
- Towards Kaindy Lake and Kolsai Lake
- Towards Kegen
- Kazakh-Kyrgyz border
And if you want to see a little bit more of my road trip in the east of Kazakhstan, you can watch my YouTube video from 2019 (10m 27s).
How it went on with my stomach upset and my road trip in Kyrgyzstan, I will tell you in my next blog post.
Cheers, Ruediger 😎