Posts Tagged ‘Kazakhstan’

Testing, Testing, Testing.

9th July 2010 by Paul

DSC_0390It would be easy to imagine that a title like that would precede a blog on the testing of communications, and to some extent, it that would be a reasonable assumption.

But what I’m compelled to write about is the many ways we have been tested in the first four weeks of our adventure, and how we have – and in some cases, have not – coped.  Our experience so far has been one of contrasts.

In my pre- expedition imagination, our first leg – a reasonably easy paced journey through Europe – was to be an enjoyable sojourn after the frantic weeks of pre-departure chaos.  We both started the adventure tired, and a little stretched by a month of camping in our own home.  This was to be a time to wind down and get into overlanding mode, provide some transitional support for Natalie in her running of the business in my absence, and try out the various adaptations we had made to Landy whilst there were still a lot of English speaking people around, and easily accessible Land Rover Dealers en-route.

Our late departure and immovable visa dates, however, necessitated a faster pace through Europe, with long stints of driving and not much else.   Any hopes of finding comfortable European campsites were dashed by the unpredictability of where our day would end – and the fact that we had left behind the Camp Europe reference guide in order to save weight in one of our last minute re-packing sessions.  Of necessity, this resulted in a number of tense and fitful nights sleeping upright in the cab, unable to find a place we both felt comfortable enough to pitch the roof tent.  Our legs began to swell at the ankles, and this rapidly moved upwards to the knees.  Two weeks of sitting upright all day with virtually no exercise is clearly not good for circulation!

I have been blessed with (or maybe developed through experience) the ability to adapt quickly and function in situations of basic amenity, but Helen struggled initially.  Those first few night and days were punctuated by uncharacteristic, unwarranted, and certaintly unreasonable outbursts on my part, as my frustration with my plans being foiled was transferred to Helen’s lack of outdoor experience.  On one day in particular, I recall my shame at reducing her to tears with my rage – a lack of self control I haven’t experienced for many years.

DSC_0449Helen on the other hand, became increasingly frustrated with my need for simplicity and lack of clutter – and for someone who likes bags to put her bags in, it it was a serious stretch to even begin to understand my approach to things being functional.  It was a long time before we came to ease that tension (have we yet, I wonder?).

The perfector in me is unsettled by things being in a state of upheaval – but in upheaval they are.  Landy is overloaded and hence poorly packed; our personal luggage is in a state of permanent dishevelment; our record keeping book is falling apart (literally); and our schedule is so stretched that we have barely time for daily functions.  My discomfort is tempered only by the wonder of starlit skies, the most wonderful generosity and kindness of people, and the constant knowledge that in the end, all will be well.

I don’t like letting people down, and yet, as we have travelled, each day seems to bring another factor that makes this so.  First, I mislaid my telephone early on in the trip, so the contact we promised to Natalie and other has been less than frequent.  Internet café’s have seen their day in Europe with the coming of WiFi and internet enabled mobile phones, so we have struggled to access the internet and to keep up with email.  Our plan was to post regular videos of our experiences via n camcorder and laptop, but we have discovered they can’t be connected, so we are now faced with a complicated and far less than ideal process that uses a second camcorder, an SD card, and a maximum clip size of ten seconds video at one time – which means our video production is way behind schedule.  We are slowly resolving these things, but they are impacted upon by the need to keep pressing on lest our visa for Russia expire before we do!

In broad terms, our planning could have been better and our preparation more extensive, but I am reconciled to the fact that, in my experience if not in my ambitions, plans rarely execute as expected, and any amount of preparation is rarely enough.

I am also coming to understand that routines – even basic ones – are not best designed or forged.  They evolve out of a mirriad of small discoveries, frustrations and realisations – like a perfect bonsai tree is the result of tiny but regular snips here and there – mixed with patience.  At the start of week five, we are just starting to understand how things need to work, what we need to hand and what can be dug for when needed.  We have adapted our personal routines to match the situation we are in, and have become comfortable with the achiveable levels of personal cleanliness, rather than quest for those we enjoyed at home.   I have begun to wonder when my feet will be clean again, and when I dare accept a biscuit without washing my hand first.  Gone too are the modesties imposed by British society, and in their place are those that recognise the need to function in an environment of scarce resource and plenty of time.

DSC_0338In an attempt to best prepare Landy for the treacherous conditions in Kazakhstan, we blew a large chunk of our precious fund on in-dealership maintainence in Russia.  We have subsequently discovered that, despite providing all the parts ourselves, the repairs were incomplete and conducted with a level of competence befitting a first year apprentice.   At best incompetent , wilful at worst, the resulting damage has compromised our enjoyment of the drive through this wonderful country, and at worse put our safety at risk – driving a vehicle on undulating and potholed roads with undamped front suspension takes a while to get used to!!

Our bad experiences though, have been contrasted by some turns of events that can only be described as miraculous.  In our darkest hours, we have discovered the most profound beauty of Kazakhstan – it’s people.   So many acts of selflessness, generosity, and kindness regardless of personal wealth.   No one act stands out above the rest, and they have not all been on the same scale, but thay all typify a country and people that still enjoys some things we seem to have have lost in Britain – daily living underpinned by strong ethics and shared values; a kindred spirit; and a love for others that shines more than self.

As we limp the 600km towards Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital, with broken suspension and the certainty that we will not meet our visa expiry date on Monday (its now Friday, and the border is six days drive away in a decent car),  it’s difficult not to feel a little exposed and isolated.  Our contact in Almaty says the Land Rover dealership we are heading for is worse that useless, and that visa extensions are almost impossible to obtain at the end of your visa.  We have no idea what the outcome will be.

Our physical health has stayed reasonably good – apart from Helen’s acquaintance with the travellers trots, my own brief flirtation with food poisoning, and my recent attempt to hacksaw off my left index finger.  But the sense of constant pressure means our emotional health has seen better times.  Forty degree heat, no rest days, mechanical failures, and such massive uncertainty about what will happen next all make it easy to wish that life were a little easier.

DSC_0284But then, doesn’t our experience in some way parallel the lives of the people we are flashing past in our attempt to meet our own comitments – be it expectant school children or state bureaucracy?  Maybe what we are experiencing is not an imperfect version of what our overlanding life should be, but a perfect version of what it is?

It is difficult not to be aware, as we wake below the stunning snow topped peaks of the mountains bordering Kazakhstan and Krgystan, next to a babbling brook, and warmed by the ealy morning sunshine, that…

In the end – all will be well.


The President’s Birthday

6th July 2010 by Helen

6th July

Today is the President’s birthday.  The biggest celebrations are going on in the capital city of Astana, but still the locals here in Kyzlordya have been proud to tell us today is a day of celebration.

Last night we had driven out of town trying to find somewhere to camp, but once again it is mainly marshland and a haven everywhere for mozzies.  Opted to sleep in the cab rather than run the gauntlet and put the tent up.  Enjoyed a luxury shower inside our mozzie net under our awning this morning.

The amazing thing is how quickly you get used to doing this sort of thing by the roadside in a country where nobody bats an eyelid.

The other day when Paul was working on Landy the toilets had no doors and opened up to a view of the road.  Squatting over the hole Paul saw a local on a horse and cart trotting towards him!!  Now in England that would have been excruciatingly embarrassing, but somehow here these things are much more natural.

Could it be terminal?

5th July 2010 by Helen

Saturday 3rd July

After the punishing 140 km round trip over corrugated roads between Aralsk and Zhalangash (and the ship cemetery), the clanking sound Landy has been making has worsened.  We are now really concerned about the next stage of our trip.  A stop on one of the many roadside ramps (for checking under cars) did not reveal anything.  Paul hanging on the side of Landy while Helen drove did not reveal anything either.  Finally, after a lengthy roadside stop checking virtually every nut and bolt Paul discovered the front shock absorbers had shed their dust sleeves and the top mountings were moving up and down a couple of inches.  Further investigation revealed the workmanship at Land Rover in Stavropol had been less than competent.  Some components had been fitted upside down and some not fitted at all!!DSC_0309

We were still very much a long way from any village or town and with a full day’s mechanical work ahead of him we needed somewhere to park where we had easy access to supplies.  We drove carefully and very slowly for another 50km until we reached a cafe where we could park for the night and Paul could correct the work on the shock absorbers the next day.

While Paul was diagnosing the cause of Landy’s alarming rattle Helen did some housework and removed the bodies of dozens of grasshoppers from the lights and radiator grill.  We had driven through swarms of them earlier in the day.

Realising that after our long day at Aralsk we were running low on drinking water and siezed the opportunity to stop when we saw a sign for a tap.  We were disappointed to find the water both brackish and oily, a result of it seeping up through oil laden strata.  However, this water is all that is available to the local families of the village, and which these children were collecting in containers to take home.  Look closely at the sand beneath their feet and the black crude oil deposit is clearly visible.