The steppe

Kazakhstan route

Everything changed a little when we entered Kazakhstan. The potholes instantly multiplied, becoming worse even than the Ukraine. The landscape became even more vast and empty, the deserted steppe which stretched ahead of us covering an area the size of Western Europe. The people became less shy, and crowded around whenever we stopped, shaking our hands and questioning us, while the police suddenly became much more interested in our vehicles, and more pertinently, in our wallets.

The first 200 miles from the border to the first town contained more potholes than the rest of the trip put together up to that point, and for hours we slalomed along the deserted, broken tarmac, avoiding the impacts as best we could. After a night in Atyrau we pushed on, the road suddenly deteriorating to a point where we were forced to crawl along over the undulating, broken surface, the Corvette’s lack of suspension travel meaning it was often on 3 wheels as it tiptoed through the dips and troughs, the forth wheel sometimes floating up to 2 feet in the air.

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After about 5 miles of these terrible roads, the Rolls Royce banged its exhaust, which promptly snapped, turning the refined vehicle into something which rivalled the Corvette for aural uncouthness. With no towns on the map for the next 100 miles, we beat a retreat to the last settlement to get it patched up, where we discovered the manifold had cracked, requiring a very tricky piece of welding to fix, but after a few hours of trying the local welding chap managed to tack-weld the two pieces of manifold back together, a repair that lasted all of the next 50 miles.
While the Rolls was being welded, we took tea with some locals, who advised us to loop around the bad road by heading 300 miles north to the town of Oral, then carrying on east to rejoin the more direct, through terrible road. So that’s exactly what we did, the largest detour of my life carrying us across the steppe on reasonable tarmac, towards the road to the Aral Sea, with the Kazakh police force hassling us all the way.

We’d driven the road from Oral to Aralsk before, in 2006 when we completed the Mongol Rally at the wheel of a pair of dainty Minis, and the improvements in this section in the intervening 7 years were all too clear. Where once the road surface was littered with gargantuan potholes, we were now able to sweep along new tarmac; where once there was a hundred miles between petrol stations, there was now a rash of newly built services. The most dramatic transformation came on the 200 miles leading to the Aral Sea, which had previously been a nightmare of disintegrating tarmac, slowly being reclaimed by the steppe – hence we were most surprised when we found that a brand new road had been built, enabling us to cover the distance in about 3 hours, compared to the 2 days it took us to drive the road on the Mongol Rally.

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The town of Aralsk was as we’d remembered it, a dusty, broken place which was once a bustling fishing port on the Aral Sea, before ill-advised Soviet irrigation schemes meant the ocean retreated and left its harbours dry, flooded only by a sea of sand.

As we continued south towards Kyrgyzstan, the roadworks were very much underway, so for hundreds of miles we drove on gravel tracks in the steppe, parallel to the new highway, popping into the towns of Kazylorda, Turkistan and Shymkent as we got closer to the border, and mountains started to rise in the south.

We’re now in Almaty, having just spent several days in Kyrgyzstan, exploring the mountains to the south of Bishkek. The cars have been running well, all things considered, with only the Rolls Royce’s detaching exhaust and a few brake issues causing concerns up to this point, all of which we fixed yesterday, meaning the cars are ready for their biggest challenge of the trip – China.

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