Kazakhstan, a country where you cannot leave empty-handed...
We cross the Kazakh border very quickly and without difficulty. We drive towards Cemey and go through huge desert plains where there are still some small villages but the collective farms (kolkhoz) from the Soviet era are abandoned. At Cemey, we notice that the Kazakh population is multi-ethnic and the people we meet speak Russian. The climate is milder than in Russia, but when the wind rises on the steppes, it gets cold. But this does not prevent us to make the rotation of the wheels and to do the oil change of Totoy. When you cross the steppes, good locations to camp are rare, but we find all the same a quiet spot along a river where trees shelter us from the wind. There is dry wood in this place, which allow us to spend an evening in front of our warm campfire.
The next day we continue south towards Almaty. The road is a bit monotonous with its desert areas but we eat up quietly the kilometers. By late afternoon, we start looking for a camp, but we do not see a tree or a hill that would allow us to shelter from the wind. The kilometers pass by, the sun disappears behind the horizon and we finally see a farm in the middle of the steppe where we stop. We're lucky, the owner is here with his wife and brother. The welcome is warm, he tells us where to put Totoy for the night and his wife invites us to drink tea. The will arrive much later, because Azza, his wife, is milking cows. Meanwhile, Suleiman opens the bottle of vodka and then we understand that we will eat with them, to absorb the vodka. We learn that their whole family is from Chechnya and that they are Muslims but that do not stop them from drinking alcohol. In Kazakhstan, they are very tolerant about it.
The meal is delicious, it is sheep offal (tongue, stomach, intestines...), we even drink fresh milk because Azza is back from milking. We finish the bottle of vodka of 1.5 liter at four, with the golden smile of the boss. In Kazakhstan, many people of a certain age have teeth in gold or silver. We talk about travel and then they show us a photo of Walters, an American who travelled on foot around the world and spent also a night in this farm.
The next morning, a shepherd put all the farm animals out of the enclosures. We are not very fresh, and we laugh when we try to help the shepherd to gather his flock. Then Azza insists so that we have breakfast with them. Celine has no luck, she does not drive and she must take a glass of vodka with Sultan, the brother of Azza. The boss takes this time the bottle of 3 liters. It's hard for breakfast, especially because she has to take a second glass.
We finally take the long straight road across the Kazakh steppe. We pass through some small villages and we understand now what said Suleiman: most gas stations are abandoned or they only offer diesel or gasoline. Indeed, Kazakhstan produce oil, but foreign countries that have signed contracts are served first and the rest supply the country. We note that unleaded is more affected by the shortage.
We also noted that the Kazakh seemed afraid of the police on the road and every time they saw a police car, they were almost at a standstill. On our side, we were stopped several times without any trouble, until today when we understood the meaning of the word "corruption"...
Crossing a downtown, we turn right after seeing an "Almaty" sign, but we don’t notice there is a sign prohibiting to turn right. Kazakhs on the sidewalk make us great signs wanting to tell us that this road is one-way. We immediately stop, but it's too late, the police spotted us. They are two, one is super cool and very annoyed because we are tourists and the other tell me to get in their car. Celine joined us discreetly filming the scene with the GoPro camera and then as she speaks some Russian, the officer tell him to take my place. He explains that the penalty charge is 27,000 Tenge (about € 120), we are worried because we do not have the money to us and it seems very expensive. We make things last, time passes, Celine explains our journey, for my part, I show the vehicle to the other officer who is very friendly. Finally he explains that he is annoyed because if we want to go to Kyrgyzstan with the fine recorded in the computer, customs will not allow ourselves to cross the border. This is probably false, but it is a way for him to tell us that we can pay our fine in cash without any receipt. We ask him to help us and he offers a discount of 65 €. We are confused, we do not want to make this system work. We discuss us in French and agree, we will not give anything. Anyway, we have time. Indeed, time passes, and the officer asked, "So what?". Celine said that we are not comfortable and it's too expensive. The other officer, annoyed since the beginning of our interview, ended up taking our papers placed in their vehicle and give me them back. As for the other officer, he ends the conversation by saying that it is prevention and tells us we can go. We are surprised, but relieved and grateful them all the same before starting out again our journey.
When we live such a situation of corruption, it causes some feeling of discomfort. It's still sickening to see the police behave like this whereas they are supposed to protect the population (who already pay taxes for their salaries).
We continue our journey, the landscape changes and the mountains appear clearly. We are approaching a huge lake 60 kms north of Almaty. The weather is beautiful, there is no wind, we say that this is the perfect place to camp. This softness is so nice that we stay two nights. Then we learn that this is an artificial lake whose level has dropped by more than 2 meters. On one of our pictures we can see Totoy on the sand and it is easy to imagine the water level who would be above our roof box if China's neighbors had not installed several dams upstream for years. Water in Kazakhstan remains a major problem, the situation in the Aral Sea is the most obvious example.
When we arrive in Almaty we discover a modern city where the standard of living seems quite high. We decide to bivouac south of the city near the mountains, and find very luxurious homes away from what we've seen in the country since our arrival in Kazakhstan.
After two days in Almaty, we meet Almagul whose contact had been given by Francois, a French journalist we met in the Gobi Desert (see article "From the Gobi Desert to Russia via the Altai"). We go with her and her friend Dina hiking in the mountains. The snow leopard is the symbol of the city of Almaty, it is indeed in the mountains that we can see it.
Then, we visit the workshop of an artist who produces many objects made of leather and gives new life to old hats.
Our friends show us the green bazaar where we can buy various products of Central Asia: dried fruits, meat, honey, dairy and traditional Kazakh cuisine. In the evening, they prepare us Lagman, traditional dish made of pasta (like thick spaghetti) along with pieces of meat, vegetables and spices.
We talk with them about current social issues during the two days spent together, like this one : there are many foreign companies operating in Kazakhstan, but few domestic enterprises which concern the Kazakhs, as a large part of the economy is based on raw materials such as oil and uranium. It is currently estimated that in 20 years the oil reserves will be exhausted. What's going to happen at that time?
Almagul, who two days a week, teaches at the University of Biology, proposes us to explain our project to one of her classes. We are excited and prepare the presentation with her. We share two very pleasant hours with the students who are very attentive and concerned by the dangers that threaten our environment, and indirectly our health (drinking water problem, palm oil ...) and our economy. Nutella product is a good example to discuss these problems, since the massive use of palm oil for the production of this kind of product is one of the causes of deforestation in Indonesia, generating different problems:
- The loss of biodiversity, since primary forests give way to monoculture oil palm, not allowing wildlife to survive.
- These oils of medium quality associated with sugar are not necessarily what are best for the health of consumers.
- Economically, the consumption of Nutella does not support local producers, which nevertheless offer consumers very good local products, made of milk, honey, fruits ...
This simple example allowed these young people to understand that we could all be actors at our level. We are now confident that they will have a think for the orangutans in Indonesia when they see a jar of Nutella or other product containing palm oil. Kazakhs have already begun to take action by creating the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan http://www.acbk.kz/en/
Almagul also works for Antigen. This company has various industries, including the production of animal vaccines, diagnostics to prevent animal diseases, the production of nutrient solutions and the production of enzymes for the production of fermented camel milk and mare.
Almagul showed us round the company and we are impressed with the technical means, the beauty and cleanliness of the premises. We meet Gurvan, the director with whom we discuss the wild camels. Then he called one of his contacts in Kyrgyzstan so that he greets us in Bishkek.
It's time to go to the Kirghiz border, Gurvan does not want us to leave empty handed. Almagul explains that the tradition is that guests always leave with a gift. His wife joined us and offer various homemade products, mutton, potatoes, butter, jam, in addition to smoked fish that had already given Almagul and Dina. But the basket does not seem complete because Gurvan adds a nice bottle of red wine.
A very nice reception that we will not forget. The adventure continues in Kyrgyzstan.
View the album on Flickr.
You can see all our pictures about Kazakhstan on this link.
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