After leaving Volgograd, the next obstacle of note, police checks are now
not really worth noting, was to get out of Russia and into Kazakhstan.
Driving towards the border we reached a check point about 5Km short of the
actual border. It seemed this was where the authority passed from the police to the Military. We had to wait here about an hour, and spent our time entertaining the guards, who found great enjoyment in teaching Spike how to swear at the Kazakhs when they’re pointing guns at us (something he will obviously not be doing). After this we moved forward to the passport control and left Russia with no dramas.
After crossing a huge bridge over a tiny river we arrived at the Kazak
Border post. There was a huge line of trucks and cars queuing for entrée, so naturally, we drove straight past them to the front and were quickly let into the checking area. Then things got interesting. It took about twenty minutes to find out where to get our passports stamped. When we finally found the desk, they nearly didn’t let Spike in because he has cut all his hair off. But they eventually let him through and we were off to deal with the vehicle.
An hour later, having visited 7 friendly guards we had all the declarations signed and were off to customs to check our luggage. For the first time on the expedition we took everything out of the vehicle. The guys asked us how much our whiskey was worth and hinted about cigarettes and a present of either would probably have eased our passage. But we were in no rush and want to save our ‘present’ material for when we really need it, and we let him check everything. He had a great time playing with the iPods, looking at our phones and generally messing about with our stuff. When finally he was happy we drove into ‘Kaz’ and set up camp and chilled out to celebrate with a game of Flop (expedition life is really crazy).
The next day we moved off early to get to the Caspian for a swim and then
get some miles done. The route to the sea was interesting and involved all
three of us having a lot of fun getting the vehicle nice and dynamic on some sand. We arrived in one piece however, with the vehicle having to work hard to correct our bad driving (the Landy is awesome). When we got there we were a little disappointed, it was raining, the water was freezing and we had to walk about 500 metres through slime to get to it. But we all had a swim and then ran back to the vehicle for some tea before we froze to death.
Back on the road we started to discover why they call it a depression. Apart from it being 30 odd meters below sea level (which is quite cool), there is nothing there. For miles all you can see is flat shrub land, broken only by the occasional camel or oil fields full of nodding donkeys. Then driving started to get more fun. We literally ran out of roads. From a perfect flat road on one side of a village we came out the other to a sea of different tracks. At this point you have to choose a direction and go for it. So I did, and got the vehicle nearly fully sideways on a mud flat. With full reverse lock, traction control and diff lock all on, we covered about 200 meters pointing largely sideways… But I got her back straight again and we have now found a great spot of the plains to chill out and look forward to more off road action – a bit more dynamicism – tomorrow as we continue towards Aqtobe.
Police stop count: 13
Bribery total to date: A pack of Marlboro and a (very cheap) bottle of wine!
Playing on the iPod: “Rock the Kazbar” by The Clash
We have just set up camp for the night on what looks like the African plains. Having left Volgograd we are still in Russia, camping outside the city of Astrakhan (fortunately we have not been made prisoners!). The people and landscape has changed dramatically. We saw our very first real cowboy and a policeman with a penchant for our Malboro cigarettes (yup, we got stopped again – Police stop count: 9). The people suddenly look far more Asian in ethnicity. The expedition seems to be beginning in earnest now and we’re all excited.
We intended to leave Volgograd on Monday morning after a quick trip to a school, where we were to meet Chris, our Russian contact from Real Russia.
Real Russia kindly sponsored our visas for Russia and Mongolia. We did a presentation to about 40 people at a languages institution. We were then going to hit the road and make some miles towards Astrakhan. However, as they tend to, our plans changed a little and after doing a really good case study with our lovely translator (thank you so much Oksana) we were taken to a Russian baths by Chris. This involved our first encounter with vodka, and the evening went from there! Large swathes of the nights were financed by a random Russia guy who decided that we were his friends.
Volgograd is an incredibly long city, supposedly the longest in the world and we spent a great few days there seeing the sights. It was formerly known as Stalingrad and we visited the only building that wasn’t destroyed in the battle for the city, which was the bloodiest in World War Two. The entire city was rebuilt after the war and they did a pretty good job – far better than Plymouth but that doesn’t say much.
We also visited the massive statue of Mother Russia. She dwarfs the Statue of Liberty and is depicted wielding a gigantic sword and screaming into the wind. It is at the heart of a big war memorial and we had a game of Flop in the grounds. The Russians have a lot of respect for the military and half the city seems dedicated to fallen comrades.
Many thanks to all those who have been sending us sat phone messages, especially Ed who must be very bored at work! Chris, thanks for the visas and the vodka. Svetlana and Oksana, thank you for being our guides and being generally lovely!
Playing on the iPod today: Fast Car by Tracy Chapman.
Dave and Pete engage in a serious bit of flopping (rules to follow)
In a bid to break up some fire-wood, Pete and Dave have a little game of see-saw, but only succeed in looking ridiculous (especially Dave’s mincing!)