We arrived at the Rubtsovsk border crossing to the Kazakh town of Semey just before 9am with fears it could take hours to get through. Our concerns were superfluous.
There was one truck waiting at the boom gate of what we assumed was the border. Unsure of border crossing procedure we watched as he went through and then positioned our Hilux in front of the gate. It opened for us and we drove into the fenced area and up to what appeared to be the vehicle checking station. We were directed by a Russian man in uniform to leave the car and go through passport control. In ten minutes we were stamped out of Russia and the car had had a brief and by no means thorough search by the Russian guard.
“Do you have any guns or drugs?” he said.
He motioned towards the cool box, “What’s in there?”
“Food and drink”
“Ok, you can go. Das vidanya”
And just like that we were out of Russia.
We drove on through the fenced area to the next building and found passport control. Again there was no fuss and the process took maybe fifteen minutes. We got back into the car and were directed to customs control which was a large tin shed containing a bored looking Kazakh man in uniform and a german shepherd on a chain. The bored customs official got up and shook hands with Phil and Chuck. He had us open a few of the car doors. Seeing our mass of belongings packed almost to the point of exploding out of the vehicle he decided a thorough search would certainly be a waste of his time.
“Ok, you can go. Das vidanya”
And just like that we had entered Kazakhstan.
First encounter with Kazakh police
We headed into the city of Semey to re-stock for the two-day drive to Astana and to see some more Lenin statues. On our way out of Semey I had my first encounter with Kazakh police. In Kazakhstan the police are notorious for their revenue raising endeavours. They set up on the side of the road and pull over every second vehicle. Sometimes they have speed cameras, sometimes they just pull you over to check documents. This particular time we had just left a fuel station and I’d forgotten to turn my lights on. It’s illegal to drive without your lights on at any time of day so I was worried I would certainly have to pay a fine.
If you’ve been pulled over you have to take your documents and get into the police car where one officer processes the fines while the other continues to stop vehicles. You end up with a line of people waiting for their documents to be checked and as the policeman and I couldn’t understand each other, and he seemed unsure of what to do with my foreign license, I had to wait while he processed everyone else. The policeman was friendly enough and we established that yes, I didn’t have my lights on. With a combination of English and sign language I told him I had simply forgotten to switch them on and that I was sorry I didn’t understand what else he wanted me to do. After about twenty minutes of getting in and out of the police car and lots of shrugging on my behalf, the policeman smiled, gave up trying to fine me, and we were on our way again.
Quest for a camping spot
As we headed towards Astana we became concerned about where we were going to camp. The landscape was flat and there wasn’t a tree to be seen for miles. Where would we hide Betty (the Hilux) and The Palace (our tent)? It started to get late and we made the decision to take a track that went off into the distance and hoped we could at least get quite far from the road. Luck was with us and this track revealed a secret. About a kilometre from the road the track ahead disappeared and as we approached the edge of a cliff we discovered a wide river flowing below. We drove along the edge and the track dropped down into a small forested glen dotted with clearings and old campfires. We’d stumbled upon a beautiful riverside campsite. We picked our spot, enjoyed the golden hour with a beer, stoked up the campfire and had a lovely end to our first day in Kazakhstan.