Crossing Kazakhstan & Russia: the steppes and Siberian Altai Republic

Posted by on Aug 25, 2013 in blog | 0 comments

Crossing Kazakhstan & Russia: the steppes and Siberian Altai Republic

Saturday, Aug 10

From Almaty north to the Russian border is a 23-hour drive, if you include a 15-minute bread and cheese dinner under a gas station lamp, a chocolate stop and a one-hour nap in the front seat pulled over on the side of the road. It also includes a road that rivals Turkmenistan in infrastructure horror.

Short on time, we crossed Kazakhstan in yet another cannonball run for the border. There wasn’t much to see: a lake, mountains, a long barren expanse and a few towns. Yoav got pulled over for speeding by a police officer, confused him by asking for directions and then drove off. Ticket “fine” avoided. I was sorry to miss the capital Astana, but it was hundreds of miles out of the way.

1 600

600 km out of Almaty on the steppe.


photo 1
Sandwich lunch

Previously called Akmola, meaning “white death,” Astana is where Stalin built his gulags, including the notorious camp for Wives of Traitors. In 1998, the city was renamed Astana, which, creatively, means “capital.” It’s a weird place, I hear, cold and wind blown in the middle of the open steppes and filled with new, futuristic buildings: a huge Norman Foster-designed glass pyramid, a building made to look like the White House and one of the largest concert halls in the world. After creating the city, the Kazakh government forced foreign companies to move their offices there. Joanne said when a friend was preparing to re-locate, a local Kazakh woman heard the news and sadly shaking her head, grabbed a piece of paper and drew a grave with a cross.

It was dawning behind the mountains at 4am when we pulled up to Russia on a road with potholes like battle trenches. We breezed through, the Russians taking no notice of the taped up export plates, and onto the best road I’ve seen since Turkey. A few hours later, we were reunited with the Bandits in Barnaul and somehow ended up in the apartment of a Russian woman named Emma with purple hair who gave us all cups of tea, signed my map and gave me a shell to remember her by.


photo 3
Emma invited us all into her apartment for morning tea

We drove across Siberia for three days, camping among the thick pine forests, clear rivers and brown bears. We were towed out of the mud twice. Owen and Yoav replaced the Bandit’s alternator belt on the side of the road, snow-capped mountains in the distance. It was cold at night and I wrapped myself in blankets, sleeping in the van or in the Bandit’s extra tent. We spent our last Rubles on vodka and a bag of potatoes.


Tow #1




Tow #2

The Bandits replace the alternator belt

Siberian campsite

Siberian farm

It’s been 14,000 km since we left London. The van is sounding bad, the Kazakh road roughed her up. Opel wasn’t meant to leave the German autobahn. We need to get her to Mongolia before she gives up on us for good. Tomorrow we enter our last country.

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