Part 9 (29 June - 29 July) Kazakhstan

We were on a mission

On the 7th of July (in 8 days) the new crew of the ISS was going to be launched into space from the Russian space center of Baikonur, in the middle of Kazakhstan. Since it has been Jeroen`s childhood dream to watch a rocket launch, this was an opportunity not to be missed! Unfortunately it meant a 2300km drive over roads that would probably not qualify as ‘good’, so we had no time to waste!

Kazakhstan and we started off on the wrong foot. We should have taken this is a bad omen for things to come… First of all a border officer wanted money to open the gate because it was almost closing time (we didn`t pay him, we were tired and happy to camp there). Secondly, our suspension broke about 20km into Kazakhstan, because the roads were just as bad as on the Turkmenistan side. Our beloved Land Cruiser couldn`t take it anymore. Our luck was that we could still drive, so after about 300km through oil fields and a night of beautiful bush camping along the Caspian Sea, we arrived in Aktau. Here a lovely young lady working at the Toyota garage (see photo ;-) took care of us and our car and 1 day later we could continue. Hurray! 

Receiving our first camel love 

We moved eastwards into the marvelous beauty of the Mangistau region. The region is little visited, but full of geological wonders, such as Lion`s rock, which you can see below, where Nicolette had a close encounter with a curious camel. It was in need of some love J

Road from hell

The road ahead was described by other overlanders as a shortcut, but it also was the worst road they had ever taken. There was a recommended alternative route, but this would mean a 500km detour! We decided to give the shortcut a try. We gave up after 20 minutes. For the first time on our trip we found ourselves defeated by a road. The potholes were large enough to fit our car in and they were so numerous it was impossible to dodge them. More importantly, there was nobody else on the road, which meant no help in case the car (or we) broke down. So we decided to turn back and to take the long way around.

Endless steppe

There is some real beauty in Kazakhstan, in the form of the endless Kazakh steppe. Roads seem to go on forever towards the horizon and you rarely see other traffic. Strangely enough, this made the roads pretty intense to drive, because we would coast along over perfect roads and all of the sudden a huge pothole or a broken piece of asphalt would appear, putting the brakes of the car to the test! 

We made good progress by driving all day and then eating and sleeping at truck stops. Not the best 'guide book pretty’ places but the Plov (rice dish) and Pelmeni (meat & onion mini-dumplings) were excellent. Also, most truck stops are guarded, which is very nice as this part of Kazakhstan is not the safest, with a high crime-rate and the recent terrorist attacks in the nearby city of Aktobe.


The road we chose took us to the fishing village of Aralsk at the infamous Aral Sea, a Soviet ecological disaster where so much water has been drained for the irrigation of cotton fields that the Sea is actually drying up. But things on the Kazakh side of the Aral Sea are improving with the construction of a dam in the middle of the sea. Waters are expected to reach the shores of Aralsk in 2017, but the Aral Sea will disappear entirely in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan...

Baikonur rocket launch!

The scenery along the way from Uralsk to Baikonur had changed quite a bit, from green grassland steppe to almost desert-like conditions (with lots of camels hanging around) in the area of Baikonur. 

Both the Russian space port and Russian-leased Baikonur city are not accessible unless you are willing to pay... a lot. The Russians charge 500 euros for a spot where you still need binoculars to see the launch and for 5000 euros they take you within eyebrow-burning distance of the rocket J 

So why go then? Well, it “should” be possible to witness the launch from the main road 30 – 40km(!) away. 

We camped at a local café run by 3 local boys and their aunt who let us use their internet and ‘lounge room’. In turn we invited them to go see the launch with us the next morning. One of the boys confessed he had never seen a rocket go up although he had been living in Baikonur city for 16 years! 

We took position at a launch-watching-spot we scouted the day before and turned the NASA countdown and live feed on at our phones. We were ready! 15 minutes later the counter hit 0 and…nothing… 

After 10 seconds Nicolette yelled “THERE!!” and a bright little speck of light could be seen moving upwards with amazing acceleration! It was incredible… with binoculars the shape of the rocket could clearly be seen and after 2 minutes the 4 booster rockets could be seen separating from the main rocket and falling down to earth. Mission accomplished!!

Ancient Sauran and Turkistan

During our 1400km drive east we came across the ruins of ancient Sauran, a city described in Mongol times as a jewel of the Kazakh plains. The massive place was only partly excavated and completely deserted, no guards and no tourists. So an excellent place to fly our drone! You can find the video on the left.


Also we visited the beautiful city of Turkistan, see the pictures below.


Return of the Spanish

We reunited with our Spanish amigos Javi and Ines in the old capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty. They were having some serious car troubles. As our car needed some TLC as well, we decided to share an apartment, do some necessary laundry and visit a garage together. 

Our first victim

To give our cars the needed attention, we went to a dodgy area of Almaty called ‘Car City' where we shopped for gear oil and just-in-case parts for our China trip. 

When we left our parking spot, Nicolette managed in one smooth turn to wedge the gate-beam of the parking area between our spare tire and the car. We didn`t notice, so when we took off we yanked the whole installation off its socket and bended the beam… much to the horror of the parking attendant who dashed out of his office waving and yelling… 

A (very) long story followed, in the end our insurance proved pretty useless, we couldn’t agree on a price to cover the cost of the replacement of the beam, so we ended up driving to the “beam store” (yes there is actually a store like that) and buying a new one and delivering it to Car City. Everybody happy. Cool experience but let`s not do that again J

Getting our car upgraded

The next day we both set out to get our cars fixed and upgraded. Garage 'G-Motors' specializes in fixing Mercedes vans ... and armoring Mercedes G-Wagons with 6cm thick bullet-proof glass and massive steel plating. When we discretely inquired about what customers needed armoring, the owner replied with a smile; “Rich people!” JJ
We had our side panel welded back on again (it came off during our Sauran expedition), the steering realigned and we had our shock absorbers replaced by big-ass ARB units. When we drove back it was like we were driving a new car! The car actually turned when you moved the steering wheel and we didn`t bounce around like a pogo-stick after each little bump in the road. Money well-spent.


We spend a week in an apartment in Almaty while the car was being fixed. This gave us time to visit the markets, to walk in the parks and to catch a movie in a luxurious mall cinema. We found Almaty to be a very laid back city and a week gave us the opportunity to experience what it is actually like to live in it. And this is why we travel, not to tick off the Lonely Planet sights, but to experience life in other places.

Charyn Canyon

But there is a Lonely Planet sight in Kazakhstan that really is a must-see; Charyn Canyon. We can try to explain the beauty of this ‘Grand Canyon’ of the ‘-stan countries’, but you better check the pictures below and watch the drone video we shot there, the place is amazing!

National park Altyn Emel

We said goodbye to Javi and Ines and headed towards the national park of Altyn Emel for some more nature viewing. On the way we booked tickets for the 26th of July to fly out of Almaty back to the Netherlands to arrange our Chinese visa. During our trip it turned out that getting a Chinese visa is almost impossible in any other country then your home country, very annoying. 

National parks have a strange status in Kazakhstan; they are publicly accessible but they have the same security measures as military bases. So lots of paperwork (and money) in order to gain access. But it`s worth the hassle. Altyn Emel is very beautiful, completely void of people, with many huge birds to watch and ancient sites like petroglyphs (caveman rock drawings) to visit. We could even bathe in the lake! Cold but necessary!

How we almost ended up in a Kazakh jail

Back in Almaty we checked in at the same apartment again to spend the last 2 days in Almaty before we flew back home. Little did we know that we would not go anywhere…

Erken, the owner of the apartment, was kind enough to drive us to the airport. After dropping off our luggage and passing through passport control, things took an unexpected turn. A very serious lady told us we had overstayed our visa (30 day visa valid until 22 July). We disagreed and showed the entry stamp of June 27th and the registration form with the 27th of July written on the bottom as last exit date. Apparently the immigration officer who wrote this on our registration form made a mistake, so the next thing we heard was "You will not fly today! You broke the law! You are going to the police now, your bags will be taken off the airplane!"… 

Bye bye tickets, hello Kazach law system.

We were taken to a senior border control officer who told us that: "The migration police officer in Aktau made a mistake by allowing you to stay until the 27th of July ... and you broke the law"….  WTF?! For him this was not at all contradictory so he happily explained to us what was going to happen:
1. “You report to a military base tomorrow where our statement would be taken”
2. “You go to the administrative court in Almaty to be judged”
3. “Depending on your statement (and the mood of the judge) you will receive either a fine, or you go to prison, or you get deported to your home country on the first flight out not to be allowed back in for 5 years (so no access to our car for 5 years!)


What happened next was a roller coaster ride where Erken (see picture below), became our driver, translator, lawyer, guardian and friend. We ended up in a 5 minute court battle with Erken and the grumpy judge shouting at each other in Kazakh. Erken won, resulting in just a 60 euro fine for us. We were so happy! 

4 days of bureaucratic misery later we were allowed to leave the country on a special exit-visa and we had a great goodbye dinner with our hero Erken. And a big thank you to KLM, who were kind enough to return us the tickets in full!  

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