Day 19 - Balkash to Almaty:
On day 19 our luck with the police ran out. From Balkhash it was a 400 mile drive to Almaty, the old capital of Kazakhstan. The route on the M36 highway hugs the shores of Lake Balkash in an anticlock arc for 250 miles, then runs due south to the city.
The grassland around was quite barren but the road began to undulate a little to relieve the monotony. We zipped along nicely on a beautiful sunny day and stopped after about 60 miles at an isolated cafe to top up on caffeine. It was the only building for 40 miles in either direction, and had three cheerful ladies in the kitchen salting and battering fish caught from the lake. At one side of the room an old man in a workman's boiler suit was watching a dvd on a portable player.
After eggs and coffee, and a false alarm when the big fresh patch of oil on the floor under the car turned out to be from a previous vehicle, we finally left the shores of the lake following a quick visit for a stone-skimming competition, and began the
John was driving as we approached yet another police checkpoint after about half an hour. I was co-pilot.
In Kazakhstan, the police checkpoints, which crop up every 100 miles or so, have a series of speed limit signs which reduce you to 90, 70, 50 and finally 20kph before a compulsory stop. You stop for 2 seconds, whilst a cop with the ubiquitous orange baton decides whether to pull you over for a chat or just to wave you on. I won't comment on what speed we were doing in the many miles before, but from the passenger seat I can categorically say that for this checkpoint we were well within the speed limits as they came. The cop with the baton didn't seem to think so. He came over to the driver's window, said "very fast" to John, then beckoned him to go alone into the checkpoint building.
John came out about 2 mins later, having been made to pay 10,000 Tenge - around £35.00. Once they had got him inside, 3 officers showed him a still picture of the car, with the number '64kph' in
the corner. Apparently the limit at that precise point was 50kph. In the face of evidence that would have satisfied a court of large hopping marsupials, John did well to keep his wallet in his pocket for as long as he did, as the senior officer seemed to demand a fine of 100,000 Tenge, then 50,000, then 20,000, then finally 10k as another officer tried to get into John's pockets physically.
As shakedowns go, it could have been worse.
It was still a lovely day though, and we were cheered up by the sight of our first camels by the side of the road. The surrounding landscape began to undulate more and gradually turn green. A valley appeared on one side, and we suddenly realised that the low line of white cloud on the horizon before us was in fact the snowy peaks of the Ile Alatau mountain range that separates Kazak from Kyrgystan. At last! Mountains!
Almaty sits at the foot of that range, and fed by regular rainfall and mountain streams is lush, green and verdant. As we entered the outskirts of the city the roads were
lined with avenues of deciduous trees, which continued right into the central heart.
We were coming to the crux of our journey now, with Almaty being just 400km from the Chinese border. Our plans were more liquid now than at any previous point, so it made sense to book into a Lonely-Planet rated hostel to get the best information for the next steps. We chose Alamaty Backpackers who have an English-speaking administrator and offer their own tours.
Once settled in we headed into town for food, staying at the Shakespeare ex-pat friendly bar for the rest of the night. They had a dart board and Dave F, who has the ideal physique, beat John and I at 'killer' but clearly lacked stamina as we then thrashed him at 'cricket'.
Tot: 0.095s; Tpl: 0.053s; cc: 8; qc: 27; dbt: 0.0143s; 1; m:saturn w:www (184.108.40.206); sld: 2;
; mem: 1.2mb