Desert Commando Raid
Aral Sea - Aqtau
As a child our parents had very few surpluses. Love, enthusiasm … and milk. We had a couple of house cows that had been chosen for the size of their udders. I believe that’s a quite common and reasonable decision making principle. Mother made every imaginable milk recipe but there still remained a billy full each day which we sold to the neighbour for one shilling per week. (The love obviously extended to the neighbour.) One of the milk foods we enjoyed was ‘junket’. Basically milk with an added product that was sourced from a cow’s stomach called ‘rennet’. When it set, the bowl was sprinkled with cinnamon to disguise it and provide some taste. I remembered all of this as I first gazed down from the escarpment at the Aral Basin. This is the enormous exposed seabed that used to be the Aral Sea. While it used to be the 4th largest body of inland water in the world, nowadays the sea is only a fraction of its original size and holds a bit of water in the northern end. It’s the largest man-made ecological disaster in history and well worth reading as a study in stupidity. (I recommend you check it out). The view that spawned these thoughts was of a huge depression disappearing over the horizon, full of white dust sprinkled with sparse brown bushes. Its a few hundred kilometers from any form of civilization. Getting there involves a days drive on rough desert tracks and through millions of tons of dust.
After checking out the landlocked fishing boats, an old fish factory, the little museum and attended the ‘Miss Moynaq Nurse 2011’ competition at Moynaq we stayed the night with a hospitable local family. Next day we drove north to eventually find the remaining water which looked surprisingly like – well – any other water. It is highly saline and no longer contains any fish or other life forms. For a few minutes however, it did contain a few Kiwi toes although I confess to prudently remaining on shore given I had heard stories about the cocktail that was discharged from the most notorious Soviet chemical plant that used to be on an island just offshore before being abandoned as too dangerous.
We camped the night on the muddy / dusty shore. Tiny tents with only a sleeping bag to lie on. That evening Flypaper made a Tuna Salad with a can bought from home for these camping nights. It was delicious – but our guide and driver were reluctant to try it. The next day we saw a small lizard sunning on a rock. “Look – Tuna.” the driver shouted.
The night was thankfully cool and given the lack of toilet and washing facilities in this bare exposed place, none were sad to move on in the morning. We were hurried along by a few spots of rain which quickly and fortunately fizzled out. Our guide, who considered this was a very romantic exercise, advised we could be trapped if it rained – not a prospect to relish.
The following day involved another 120km of desert bashing - on the lookout for snakes, scorpions, foxes, desert rats and other creatures that had all missed the opportunity to join us in our tents – before turning north again towards the Kazakhstan border.
To achieve all the desert driving and knowing from our past daily experience that it is very difficult to buy diesel in Uzbekistan, our guide contacted an uncle who was a farmer in a small town enroute. Uncle in turn called in some favors from his mates at the Guvmint agriculture fuel station and we made a clandestine raid to fill our tanks and a couple of additional plastic containers. Very exciting. Our new friends were charging black-market prices for Guvmint fuel and in some hurry for us to do the business and get away before any locals discovered their sneaky activities. In my mind it was like a Commando raid. We individually drove in, fueled and scampered away while our guide paid and ran down the road after us urging greater speed away from the scene.
The last night in Uzbekistan was supposed to be in the tiny tents on mud again. However, a storm was brewing and the prospect of tenting wasn’t appealing to anyone – least of all our guide who suspected he may have a mutiny to deal with. He found us an empty house in the border town and we enjoyed a relatively civilized night. (It must be noted that our concept of ‘civilized’ has dropped a notch or two in recent weeks) At least we could sleep on dry hard concrete and did have electricity. In the morning I trotted off down to the back of the dirt compound to find relief in the little mud hut with the hole in the floor. It was just daylight and I was glad not to have to strike a match. That exercise would likely have created a methane explosion that would have alerted the authorities to our illegal accommodation. On exit, and in that contented state of mind created by the successful exercise, I was terrified when a Camel suddenly poked its head through a gap and bellowed at me for disturbing it and its calf. I can assure you I was damned glad to be on the way out rather than in.
When one thinks of Camels one thinks also of the Middle East. While I don’t know the statistics, having travelled in the Middle East and now Central Asia, I suspect there are far more Camels in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan than anywhere else. They roam all over the deserts, in the streets of the towns an often trot across in front of vehicles. They are mostly single humps but a few twin fuel tanks are also around. All look pretty shaggy at this time of year and the fat / energy storage humps are a bit deflated. In Kazakhstan we have also seen enormous herds of horses roaming around the steppes … along with countless mixed herds of goats and sheep. It’s difficult to conceive how they can all live on scraggy shrubs that appear to lack any food value. No wonder the Camels constantly moan and groan.
Being ‘tourists’ we enjoy a certain status at border controls. Privileges like driving straight past 2 kilometers of patently waiting locals, some of whom may already have spent 2 or 3 nights sleeping in their cars waiting their turn to present their humble travel documents. Again we were 1st to exit and enter at the Uzbek / Kazak boarders on that day. Their systems are a little strange by our standards and my companions claim there is no excuse for inefficiency. I travel to experience these things. If everything operated as at home it would be very uninteresting. ‘Culture’ is about the way others live their lives and do things. The mere 3 hours to move from one country to another was in my mind quite acceptable, rather entertaining and probably as good as it gets. However, in terms of inefficiency, I was reminded of the similarity and process of obtaining a building permit at our local council. The Customs search was very blasé. Both sets of officials stood well back from the vehicles exposed backside and questioned me about things they hoped could be confiscated for their own use. Wine, cigarettes, drugs. Sadly we were unable to contribute to their predilection – had we any I think our need would be greater than theirs.
So far there has been no issue with vehicle insurance, bonds or any requirement whatsoever in regard our cars. They study the wrong side of our ‘registration document’, copy irrelevant details from the ‘change of ownership form’ and never crosscheck registration number or anything else. If I was a smuggler I would smuggle cars. Flypaper was quite indignant that the Kazaks didn’t even want a customs declaration from her. It’s as if she was a ‘chattel’ in my ownership and control. Travel does provide discovery of some very good ideas.
The main highway north from Uzbekistan to the first town in Kazakhstan lived up to reputation as a shocker although we did manage to average 30kph. The night in Beyneu was remarkable only in the respect that a ‘charming’ lady showed us some wonderful rooms in her hotel … then checked us into the slummy down market end of the establishment and was rude to us for the duration of our stay. Contrary to this behaviour, Flypaper & I found a delightful elderly lady in the market who not only ran a tidy vegetable stall but was a notorious black market moneychanger. Her money counting and rate calculation skills were legendary and left me gasping in admiration as she changed our leftover Uzbek Soms into Kazak Tenge. She gave a very fair rate a lovely big flash of gold teeth … and enhanced the reputation of Kazak women.
As a result of a combination of factors we have a week in Kazakhstan on a route that is nothing more than a terrible track posing as a bad road around the north eastern side of the Caspian Sea. If we drove and suffered long each day we can cut it out in about 3 days. Our maps showed the Russian built oil port of Aqtau which used to also be a popular Russian tourist destination way to our west on the Caspian. It only added 500km each way over a terrible road – so we decided to do it. The road was so bad for about 260km that we left it and drove on desert tracks similar to those experienced around the Aral Sea. Our average speed rose from 30kph to over 50kph … although some of the time was spent flying through the air when we failed so see a treacherous bump. The Nissan Terrano’s are performing superbly. They appear to be unbreakable, quite comfortable and remarkably fast in the hands of desperate drivers keen to arrive. HeeHaw is inspirationally named as it takes enormous punishment but is always ready to accept more.
I write this in Aqtau where we have decided to recoup for 3 days before again challenging the 1,000km of deserts on the way to Russia. I have studied run down apartments and abandoned hotels, paddled in the Caspian, avoided tons of broken Vodka bottles littering the shores and escaped from a ferocious snake attack. True. I stood between the rippling surf and some rushes – right where a huge snake was headed. As it raised its head and gave me a very nasty look, with great presence of mind, I elected to digitally record my death. Contrary to what I have read and seen on TV, it is very difficult to take photographs while hopping backwards and sideways dodging vicious fangs. Consequently, the 2 photos are not good quality. Even worse, the evidence shows it was about 600mm long and at the moment the shutter closed was retreating.