Saturday, 11 August 2012
Day 138 – How an afternoon searching for flamingos became six days in the desert with some hitch hikers. (Kazakhstran)
When we left Astana last Saturday (today being Friday) we intended to take a small detour to a national park near a town called Korgalzhin where we were hoping to come across some spectacular animals and birdlife, specifically flamingos. We’d be going about 150km out of our way, then we’d double back and join up with the main road back to Almaty, arriving back by Wednesday to get our Uzbek LOIs and sort out our visas.
We arrived in the dilapidated, slightly ghosty and very ex-Soviet small town of Korgalzhin, and weren’t quite sure how to find the park. So we decided to try the very abandoned looking visitor centre we passed on the way in, and much to our surprise it wasn’t only open and inhabited, but there were actually other Western tourists there. Much to the disappointment of the lady in the centre who had been about to get her first business in probably quite a while, we offered the Dutch/Belgian couple a lift which they gratefully accepted, and declined the idea of a very overpriced tour guide. Squeezing six into the car, we intended to go and find some flamingos, camp the night somewhere in the park, and then drive them to the large town of Karaganda the next day where we could continue separately on our travels.
We didn’t find any flamingos though, but we had fun just driving around the very flat, dry, sparse land, inhabited with an extraordinary amount of wildlife, and ended up kidnapping Josje and Remco for the next six days.
This was the first time we felt we had really gotten off the beaten track; not just the tourist track but the track full stop. It’s the first time since Australia that we’ve gone for several hours without passing a single sign of life. It was hard to tell whether we were still on the road because there was little difference between that and the tracks crisscrossing across the land, and we were barely able to do more than 30 km/h for most of it. The road signs that we did come across were obviously ancient and were often undecipherable. It didn’t help that both of our compasses decided to go mental and we had to rely on our instincts and the extremely broken interactions with the very few people that we did come across. We emptied our petrol jerry can twice (only having used it once before during the whole trip), finding a dilapidated but in-use petrol station just in time on several occasions.
For water we relied on pumps in the villages we went through, utilising our 10L container for the first time and saving as much as possible. Most days we would only have one opportunity to get water and buy food supplies. On one occasion we couldn’t find water anywhere and resorted to asking a very helpful old Azerbaijani/Belarusian couple in a very derelict looking four-house village, who explained (we think) in hand gestures and finger pointing that they don’t have a nearby water source and have to get it imported by a truck. Considering the probable state of their finances and the inaccessibility of such a necessity we didn’t expect them to be able to help us, but they generously insisted on giving us three cupfuls (about a litre) and a handful of very sticky apricot sweeties.
The roads were so rough and so unmarked that it started feeling like we would never get out of the wilderness and make it back to Almaty. Needless to say though we reached the outskirts of the city and breathed a small sigh of relief, but even then it wasn’t all smooth sailing. We all needed a pee break before we really got into the city and it would become inappropriate to do so at the side of the road, so we pulled over in a nice leafy area and everyone dispersed to take care of their own business. Unfortunately I decided to be subtle and make my way into the foliage away from peeking passersby, and on the way I found myself stuck by the head to a very vicious tree. Ben, Tunkles, Denner and Remco were all preoccupied taking care of their own business, but fortunately Josje responded to my anxious calling and came to my rescue. In the couple of minutes it took for me to get my head stuck, realise, call out and for her to respond, the tree got more and more stuck to my head like some fictional strangling plant. Unable to get the alarmingly sticky balls of spiky tree out of my hair, she expertly dismantled the tree so that I could remove myself from it and continue with my business. I spent the next few hours struggling to free myself from the myriad of probably poisonous balls of tree that had relentlessly tangled themselves all through my hair, and will never again take tree free hair for granted.
It is nice to be back in Almaty, where we feel (possibly weirdly too much) very at home. We rang up our landlord from our last stint here (well our friend Gulmira rang on our behalf as the landlord speaks less English than I do Russian) and arranged our old apartment. We parked Trevor in the car park where the guys shake our hands and treat us like old friends, visited our favourite kebab shop in the central market and returned to McBurger - our favourite wi-fi hotspot.