The day after our car crash we woke up to some odd news. First thing in the morning we met with Zaur, who passed by the hotel to see how we were doing and to help us move forward, depending on our decision.
The odd news: we were going to be featured in the local newspaper of Prokhladny! Like I mentioned in the previous post, we were sort of a freak show in this small town. Foreigners don’t tend to visit it, much less crash in it, and even less while doing an international rally.
So, for about an hour we were interviewed about our experience in the rally, Russia, and our travels in general.
Shifting Gears to a New Rally Plan
After finishing the interview, we put in motion the plan we discussed as a team the night before. We would take a bus to Astrakhan, about 12 hours away, to meet with other ralliers and see if we could hitchhike the rest of the rally with them.
Before leaving, we gave Zaur a few small presents we had with us; and without expecting it, he rewarded us with a bottle of good quality vodka.
Astrakhan is the border town between Russia and Kazakhstan. We knew many rally teams would be passing through it in the next couple days since it is part of one of the popular routes in the rally. This was our best chance to continue.
We felt a bit weird doing this since we all felt like a pest, bothering other teams and hindering their adventure.
Our spirit was high still, so we joked along the way on how we went from being The Drama of Llama to No Llama, More Drama. Cheeky, eh?
Meeting New Rally Mates
After the long, uneventful bus ride (well, we played a few card games for vodka shots!), we arrived in Astrakhan and after a few hours of waiting we met with three teams: The Thunderyaks, The Cads and Bounders, and Team Turnagain (also known as the Alaskan Pandas).
Upon meeting, all team members were more than welcoming to us and told us they would be more than willing to help as much as they could. We could ride with them, at least until some point in Kazakhstan.
Stephen, Alex, and I knew that our best chances of continuing the rally would be by splitting the team and ride on different cars, different routes.
We didn’t want to split, but we promised that no matter what would happen, we would all meet at the finish line in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Before getting into the details of who goes where and how, we decided to have a chilled night with our new friends by partying in the apartment we rented all together (a total of 6 teams).
A local Russian guy named Igor, who shined by his hospitality and sense of humor, served as our host by cooking a traditional Russian meal.
I tell you, Russians have been more than hospitable to us (both Igor and everyone related to the crash).
That night was a great way to meet all the ralliers who would be our rescuers.
The following morning we sorted out the temporary plan. All three of us -Alex, Stephen, and I- would ride with The Thunderyaks until Atyrau – the first town in Kazakhstan. In order to fit in their car, Sophie and Raju (of The Thunderyaks) would ride with other teams in the convoy.
As I also mentioned in the previous post, we were a bit scared of our border crossing out of Russia since we were leaving without our car (which is not permitted by law). Luckily, we blended well with the other teams and nothing was asked from us (not even the official paperwork we had) nor we had any problems.
While on our way to Kazakhstan, we got to know the other two Thunderyaks team members; Pav and James.
The following morning was the “big decision” day. How can we continue? The Thunderyaks can’t take all three of us. They are 4 members and they can fit a maximum of 5 in their Renault Kangoo (and that’s pushing the comfort level).
The Cads and Bounders are 3 members but they can only fit one more (and again, pushing the limit). Team Turnagain, The Elephants, and Shitting Thunder had no space but could help by carrying some baggage.
After a long discussion, it was decided that Sophie would split temporarily from The Thunderyaks to take a different route with The Elephants. Alex and I would go with The Thunderyaks for as far as we could, and Stephen would go with the Cads and Bounders on a similar route, but with a different schedule.
The llamas were split for the first time.
For a few days, Alex and I rode together until we met From Denmark to Mongolia Team on the way to the Aral Sea. By the way, we decided to change their name to The Great Danes (and they are happy with it).
It was at that point that all three llamas split: I would “unofficially become” a Thunderyak, Alex a Great Dane, and Stephen a Cad and Bounder.
Even though we are riding in separate cars, we are all taking similar routes and convoying together for as much as we could, so it felt like the team was still together.
The only member that had been away the longest was Stephen, which stayed behind with The Cads and Bounders as the other teams crossed to Kyrgyzstan. But still, we managed to meet again and up to this day, we are all convoying and hoping to finish together in Ulaanbaatar, even if in different cars.
The llamas still live, and the adventure will continue. Now even better than before!
When Lots of Nothingness and Getting Stuck in the Desert Becomes Fun
We had been driving in Kazakhstan for a few days already; kind of tired of crossing hundreds of kilometers without anything in between – just desolate landscape.
But, today was going to be an interesting day, we were heading towards what would be the highlight of Kazakhstan (in our trip, at least) – the ship graveyard at the Aral Sea.
Formerly one of the four largest lakes in the world with an area of 68,000 square kilometers (26,300 sq mi), the Aral Sea has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects. The shrinking of the Aral Sea has been called “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters.”
While it’s sad that the Aral Sea is in such condition, we were all quite excited to see the ships, yet we weren’t too sure how or where to find them. As you would imagine, a sea is quite big… well, this one was.
We got to the town of Aralsk, located next to the sea, in hopes of finding the exact location of the ships. After a brief research through the locals, we found out that they are actually located about 64km away from the town and the only way to get there is by taking a single 64km dead end dirt road.
We really wanted to see them, so taking that dead end road was nothing to us… Hey, we are driving over 16,000km in the rally, so what would 64km more would do to us?
We started the tortuous drive and soon realized it would be two hours of rattling over gravel and random potholes. Nothing new to us, though.
Our four teams -The Thunderyaks, The Great Danes, The Cads and Bounders, and Gobi or Go Home- mastered the first few kilometers without any problem. That is until our car, The Thunderyaks, blew the first tire. A quick stop to change the tire and we were off again!
Along the road, since it is not transited at all, we decided to get out of the cars and sit on the windows and the roof. We were convoying rally style! We jumped between cars, drank vodka while sitting on the roof, and raced each other almost as if we were on a smooth race track.
We were living the moment and making the best of this “off-roading”.
When we reached the end of the road, we noticed that it didn’t actually reach the ships, but ended in a small village called Zhalanash. We were a bit confused at first and started asking the locals about the ships.
None of them could understand us, but as soon as we used body language to represent ships stuck on the sand, they understood and pointed us to go about a mile or two further into the desert.
We were cool with that and planned to camp next to the ships since it was quite late already.
But before we left towards the ships, we decided to do something special for the kids in the village. The Thunderyaks had been carrying a box full of donated toys all the way from London, so they decided to gift it to the kids.
As soon as the kids noticed the box of toys, they reached the car like piranhas and ate the box of toys with all their fury. They grabbed toy cars, ping pong sets, water pistols, keychains, and all sorts of different toys.
The toys were finished, yet the kids still wanted more. Still, we understood their desire for more. There is absolutely nothing in this village, so they don’t have access to toys and many other resources.
We felt really good that we could help at least in a small way.
Then, it was time to finally head to the ships. We made our way further into the desert for about 3 minutes, until Gobi or Go Home’s car got stuck in the sand.
No worries, we’re well prepared for this. As we reached towards their car to rescue them, we got stuck too. No biggie, there are two more cars to rescue us.
But, as expected, those two cars got stuck too!
All 4 cars were crippled on the sand. We struggled for a while; pushing with our own hands, pulling with other cars, and even putting camel bones under the tires for traction. None of these worked.
Still, we had one more “secret weapon” in our hands – waffle boards. These are holed boards you put under the tires so they can act as the perfect traction to get any car out of any sticky situation.
And voila, the Thunderyaks car was out of the sand! And with the Thunderyaks car, we carefully pulled out the other three cars. We were the heroes of the day! (well, we needed some pulling too!)
As we enjoyed the glory of rescuing all teams, we realized that the ships were far from our reach. We could do nothing but see them from the distance. Should we try again, we would get all stuck in the sand again.
Oh well, we admitted defeat and headed back a few kilometers to set camp along the road.
We had an amazing camping night with all 15 team members drinking and enjoying the night like no other.
To our wonder, the Kazakhstani desert had a small surprise for us – a moonless night with absolutely no luminous pollution. We could see countless stars, the Milky Way, and even Mars with our bare eyes!
The following morning we woke up to witness a few bactrian camels walking past the campsite and a few village boys walking their little goats and lambs. I couldn’t contain myself from holding one of them!
At about 11 am we packed our camp and headed back to the road, as usual, yet a bit sad that we didn’t accomplish the main reason we headed this way – to see the ships.
Still, ships or no ships, this was one of the most fun rally days since we made the best of every moment we had and enjoyed the misadventures of getting stuck in the sand as a convoy of four cars.
Who would have thought such an unaccomplished day would be so fun?
More Fun With (Even More) Camping And Driving in Kazakhstan
For some reason, Kazakhstan is the country we spent the most time in of the whole rally – about two weeks – yet there’s nothing that required us to be there for that long, except for the fact that we needed to cross a hell of a massive country from west to east. Have you seen the size of Kazakhstan?!
Anyways… Naturally, when you’re crossing a country so bare and deserted, the most fun you have is actually on the road – especially if we are talking about Kazakhstan roads, which shouldn’t be cataloged as “driveable”.
These are just a few random moments that made Kazakhstan a fun, odd, and challenging part of the rally:
Rally day #23
Before entering Kazakhstan I was told that weed grows wild on the side of the road. I didn’t want to believe it – or better yet, I thought it was an exaggeration – but it truly does! This day was our first day of “ganja spotting”. It was wild, fresh, and in bunches; for hundreds of kilometers.
I don’t smoke, but I can say that some of the other guys went a bit crazy, like kids at a candy store. Every now and then, when they spotted the magical plant, they got off the car to do some “gardening” – even when “gardening” is against the law.
Later that day, we ended camping somewhere along the side of the road, and guess what? It was a ganja field! Let’s just say that it was a happy night for many. Some guys daydreamed of setting fire to the entire field to “enjoy the natural scent of the campsite”. They wished!
Rally day #24
We saw on the map a road that was approximately 500km long, leading to the destination we planned to reach “in a timely manner.” Against the advice of a local who told us to instead take another road that totals 1000km to that same destination, we took the “short” road and brought road-hell upon ourselves.
Not even 20km in, we realized why the locals advised us otherwise. The “road” was completely broken and full of giant potholes. It was possible to drive it, but it would have taken us about 3 days at our snail pace (to not break the car in pieces).
As soon as we realized that we would run out of petrol, food, water, and money along the way; we turned around with our heads down and took the much longer, yet faster, route. Well, it was a bit of an adventure trying to figure out the road and asking the locals whether we should move forward or go back!
Rally day #25
We spent the entire day trying to get to the Aral Sea to see the ships graveyard, yet we managed to get stuck on the way and accomplished nothing. Still, this was one of the best days in the rally. You know, you already read a more detailed version above.
Rally day #26
On the way to Kyzylorda, we experience the fury of Kazakh roads. Turns out, Kazakhstan doesn’t know how to build a road sequentially. Instead, they build bits and pieces here and there all along the way, so you get on and off the road a gazillion times.
Every time you’re about to get back on the road, you raise your hopes for smoothly paved lanes, yet you end up cursing all Kazakhs because you are immediately thrown back into the rocky, bumpy, dusty, shaky, potholed, piece of strip they call a road.
This day we drove all the way until night in one of these undesirable roads until at one point we fell into a car-size pothole (not kidding). The car flew into the hole and jumped out of it on the opposite side like a wild bull. We stopped and immediately were engulfed in a thick cloud of dust.
After the dust cleared out, we noticed that luckily nothing too bad happened to the car, except for a slightly damaged suspension and some rubbing on the left rear tire. Nothing a mechanic could fix the next day. And so he did.
Rally day #31
The day we entered back to Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan, we had a major problem with The Great Danes rear suspension – it broke completely. With no suspension, their car bounced more than a rapper car at every small bump on the road.
We decided to push towards the nearest town, but we had to do it slow and carefully. The Danes were driving a Suzuki Ignis, which is notorious for having bad suspension and “bouncing off” the road. (really)
The plan of action? Lets put the lightest members of the convoy in the Danes car and drive slow – and the lightest one on the side with absolutely no suspension. Guess who won the spot? Yours truly!
We rode the bouncy, bouncy, bouncy car for about 30 km, doing our best to avoid any potholes and bumps. Still, in Kazakhstan, that’s almost impossible, so our ride challenged (and beat, in my opinion) all pimped rapper cars with the gangster bounce. (we could have made an awesome rapper video)
Once in town, we found a mechanic that botched the Danes suspension (for the gazillion time) in a few hours, and off we went to reach Almaty by the end of the day – still 250 km away.
At least we got to witness some beautiful canyons along the way at a slower than usual pace.
Rally day #33
We left Almaty in hopes of making a huge progress today to reach the border with Russia. In the end, not a lot of progress was made, so we camped late at night somewhere close to Taldykorgan.
Since we set camp so late at night, we didn’t pay attention to where we camped, but we did make a proper campsite with a campfire and even a lot of partying till late at night.
In the morning we noticed we camped on a camel toe cemetery!
Rally day #34
Can you really have three flat tires in one day? Yes! When we convoyed with the Cads and Bounders from Almaty to Semey, we hit some relatively smooth and not so smooth roads for hundreds of kilometers. The convoy was composed by The Great Danes, The Expandabubbles, the Cads and Bounders, Shitting Thunder, and The Thunderyaks.
At one point in the convoy, we noticed the Cads and Bounders had stopped following us. What could have happened? We all turned around and after a while found them parked on the side of the road with a flat tire.
They had no spare tires since both of their spares were used previously, so The Thunderyaks loaned them one of their tires. No biggie…
That no biggie sort of turned into a big deal when in the span of a few hours they had not one, but two more flat tires! They borrowed one tire from The Great Danes and one from The Expandabubbles.
The funny thing is that by the end of the day, the Cads and Bounders were using tires from four different teams and all of them of different sizes. Way to go!
Rally day #35
Pumping petrol into your car is no science; that is unless you’re using one of the old Kazakhstani pumps. Those pumps have no lever to activate the flow of petrol as you press the trigger. No… Those pumps have a single button you push to start the actual flow of petrol.
Without realizing this small big difference, James, our team member of The Thunderyaks, grabbed the nozzle from the pump and pushed the button before placing the nozzle in the tank. Unconsciously, he was pointing the nozzle towards the left side of the car, which had the passenger door open.
The button was pushed and all hell broke loose. Petrol flew inside the car like a fountain. It bathed the whole left side of the car and soaked James hands and feet.
Luckily I was sitting on the back seat with the window closed, but I could see how the petrol flowed down the window like a waterfall.
Oh… the smell of petrol we had to endure from that point on… For a few hours, though. It was immediately decided that no one could smoke in the car anymore (in the time being, at least).
Oh, Kazakhstan, you are so full of nothing but we got countless, amazing memories with you!