The first thing Dennis said to me this morning was “What city are we in today?” After 50 days on the road it is getting a bit like that! Well, it’s Astrakhan and at the beginning, or end, of the Silk Road, depending which way you look at it. You will probably know it best for Astrakhan fur collars and hats. The “fur” is actually wool from the Central Asian sheep.
Later up than planned and then we cooked porridge in the Land Rover, before setting off to look for a supermarket. We thought we had better stock up as the next section cross Kazakhstan is rather sparsely populated. Finding a supermarket proved quite difficult. So, it was late morning before we set off for Atyrau 290k’s, once inside the Kazakh border.
We were just a few kilometres from the border when a policeman stopped us. The local population are very different looking here and this policeman was typical, with Mongol/Chinese facial features. He was very jovial and asked us if we were going to Kazakhstan for a picnic! We presented him with our passports, but he didn’t want to see them. He wanted to see our car insurance documents. I thought we were going to get through Russia without ever having to show the insurance we took so much trouble to get in Murmansk. Just as well we persisted.
We arrived at the Russian border at just before 1pm and I wondered if they might close the border while they had lunch – this had happened to me in Narva about 12 years ago when crossing from Estonia to Russia. No, we were in luck. It took us just over an hour to get through. Again lots of laughing with the border staff and the customs official, who only gave the Land Rover a very cursory check. The Customs Officer had made us turn the engine off and she was very reluctant to start again, being hot. Eventually she sprang to life, after a swig of ether, but it was a worrying moment.
Next the Kazak border. Much less red tape. No visas required for entry here and a very limited customs inspection and we were in. Once over the border we were inundated with people trying to sell us car insurance and to change money. Dennis asked if they would change a New Zealand $100 note. They laughed and asked if they could keep it for a souvenir. The only currencies they would change were US$ and Euros. I ventured off to get some car insurance, as it is compulsory here. After the guy had issued a policy for me, having understood he would accept payment in US$ or Euros, he said he wanted Tenge (the local currency). I asked if I could pay in Roubles and was advised “Yes”. Then an argument developed between 2 of the guys present, over how many Roubles, after which they decided I couldn’t pay in Roubles. Out of nowhere came a lady money changer who could change my Roubles to Tenge. I didn’t have a clue what the exchange rate was, or whether I was being “robbed”. Dennis came to find out what was going on and between us we worked out it was an acceptable deal.
Almost immediately after leaving the border, we took a small right turn, Various “overlanding” contacts had advised us to take this little road. The main A27 from here to Atyrau is to quote Jorg, the East German guy we met in Suzdal “As Katastroph” K-a-t-a-s-t-r-o-p-h!. Nothing but pot holes. The small road was well surfaced until the last few kilometres before we merged back on to the A27. Pretty countryside. Very much Volga Delta wetland scenery. Herons, egrets and all sorts of water birds A lot of water and water lilies.. Herds of horses, goats and camels wandering freely.
The A27 is seriously bad, so after a couple of hours of bouncing about we decided to take a track off the road towards a small village. We found a sheltered spot among the dunes and set up camp for the night. Before the tent was even up, a local gent from the village had come over and introduced himself. We asked him how far we were from the Caspian Sea, which was south of the road. He held up 4 fingers, so we thought he meant 4 kilometres away.
Perhaps in the morning we could drive over and have a swim before setting off. As we sat outside eating dinner, herds of camels wandered past, followed by goats and cows. It was seriously hot and sleeping was not easy.