Baikonur (Kazakhstan or Russia, it depends on who you ask), 21.10.2013
The day started with a geography test and socializing lesson with a Kazakh youngster who admired the map on the Evoque while I made breakfast in the mobile kitchen. Among the milestone pins on the red route across Asia he marked his city Taraz with his finger on the dirt that covered the map. A friend came and marked the next town, Shu. In the meanwhile I focussed on coffee and sandwiches in the sun.
Barely half an hour later came already the first stop of the day and the first cultural element of this journey after quite some time. In Aisha Bibi I visited the mausoleum for a girl that according to legend was a sort of Juliet in Kazakh style. The brick building was adorned with plenty of geometrically styled ornaments and seemed indeed very light, as the LP and Wikipedia described it. Walking up to it past a well kept garden with roses and stone benches along the path, a group of local people took off their shoes and disappeared inside the building for prayer. Behind the mausoleum huge poplars bowed in the wind. There was nothing written in English, and anyway not much more to see, so I admired the construction, walked around it a couple of times and left again.
The bad road led through some endless villages with speed limitations. Pothole by pothole, school by school it took me another hour in a hilly steppe landscape to get on a highway and speed up. I had to reach Baikonur tonight, and that was over 800km from Taraz. At 14:00 I finally reached Turkestan, where I stopped to see the mausoleum of Kohja Ahmed Yasawi. The town itself is a fine example of Soviet tristesse, the mausoleum was right in the middle of it. There was no clear access road. Although this is a Unesco site, signs in English were absent. The mausoleum was huge and in the process of being renovated. Inside the walls were all white and without decoration. A big metal bowl stood in the center, and four corridors led from the main room to a mosque, the kitchen, a well and a library. Outside, a fortification encircled half the building. From the walls I had a look over the drab, run down city all around. The weather was not clear, the sun hid behind layers of dust. On the way out of town I fuelled up at a gas station with too many cars all blocking each others’ ways. The concept of waiting in line wasn’t too popular here.
From there on I had to race towards Baikonur. The brand new motorway was perfect, two lanes in each direction and almost empty. Hours went by with nothing going on, brown and yellow flat steppe surrounded me. At some point it seemed to start raining, but after a few drops the dark clouds gave up. While driving, I got instructions for entering the Baikonur area in the evening. I hoped to reach it by 21:00. In Kyzylorda the sun went down, I fuelled up again just to be safe, and left town in the last light of this day. Today I got stopped three times, the last one by a police car coming the other way. When they passed me I felt something was going on. In my rear mirror I could see them turn around at a distance, put their flashlights on and chase me. Again I had to waste time not speaking English until they gave up. The moment the night fell, the road disappeared and I had to fight my way forward through the dark and and on stone tracks, against trucks with no mercy for smaller vehicles. There were almost no roadsigns, but plenty of dust clouds. Having learnt from Mongolia, I tried to drive on the main road even if in construction, because a straight dam was still easier then the tracks. Part of it was already tarred, but I had to get off frequently since unfinished stretches and sand dams blocked my way. When I finally reached a proper part of the road, I was already close to my destination. I crossed two police cars waiting for prey in the dark. Baikonur was on no road sign all day, just the GPS indicated I had to leave the main road at some point. From there in 10 minutes I reached the gate of town, where soldiers checked cars and passengers. I had to wait for my guide and parked at a distance from them, but one came forward and told me to shut my lights off. While waiting, I tried to call the guide without success.
Half an hour I waited, almost falling asleep, when finally a girl came towards my car. Nadia was the translator for the evening and brought me into Baikonur. At the soldiers’ gate Nonna showed them some papers, and off we went to the hotel, through a dark Baikonur by night. They had parked me in a big soviet block on Lenin square. I learnt the town was without cold water, only warm one, and this would stay some days like this. I brought my bags to the very simple room, escorted by the two ladies. Then we all went to dinner at a sushi place with karaoke bar, a quite strange place. Nadia’s boyfriend joined, and in the restaurant two other friends were already waiting, drinking Kazakhstan cognac and Coke.
– Km driven: 892
– Hrs on the road: 13h
– Diesel l/100km: 9,8
– Daily high: 27 degrees Celsius
– Daily low: 13 degrees Celsius