With its ice cream stands and pristine beaches, Kazakhstan’s Lake Burabay definitely had a well-deserved holiday feel.
As Phil was back in England for a few days, Chuck and I decided to take a rest from the adventure as well. Burabay National Park, north of Astan, hosts Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s summer holiday home. Perhaps this explains the 240km of 6-lane wide newly laid tollway that leads to this lake. Were we still in Kazakhstan? Regardless, we were happy to pay the 200 Tenge ($1.30) toll for what now felt like a rare treat!
We arrived in the town of Burabay around lunch time. The streets were lined with ‘kafe’s, market stalls, shashlyk skewer stands and hotels. There were people everywhere, wandering around in swimwear, eating ice creams. There were bouncy castles for the kids and stands selling inflatable swim toys. The town was filled with a mix of Kazakhs and Russians, most of whom had come for the weekend either from Astana or the nearby city of Omsk in Russia.
The lonely planet guide-book had described a visitor information centre and nature museum with a small zoo in the centre of town. We found it on the main road and went in to find out where we could camp in the National Park. There didn’t seem to be anyone around that actually worked there and all the information boards were in Russian. We decided to peruse the collection of taxidermy critters in the museum and had a quick look at the appalling zoo where bears and wolves were kept in ridiculously small enclosures, with muddy floors and a distinct lack of enrichment. Finally we found a human in the office and asked her where we could camp. She rummaged in a box and produced a map of the lakes and pointed out the campsite. Looking at the map it seemed quite simple. However, experience had taught us well so we first stopped at a kafe for a quick beer and shashlyk. The waitress couldn’t speak English so she called a few of her friends over to try to translate the menu for us. A lovely young Russian girl with extremely pink hair named Julia came to our aid. She spoke very good English (something we had come to know not expect) and chatted happily to us about working at her mother’s clothing store and her dreams of becoming an English teacher.
It was time to head off to the national park. At the end of town was a boom gate manned by guards in army clothing. We paid our entry fee into the park and began our search for the campsite. The road wound around the lake through beautiful pine forest. There were people walking and riding bicycles everywhere and a number of places on the lakeside where you could hire row boats and peddle boats. It was a glorious day and we were looking forward to setting up camp by the lake. But where on earth was this mystery road to the right that would take us to the campsite? We drove back and forth around the lake several times trying every side road we could find. No sign of anyone camping at all. Once again, something that looked quite simple on a map was proving very difficult!
Eventually we spotted a man with a big rucksack and a tent and asked him where he was going. He pointed towards the lake and said the campsite was out on the peninsula but you couldn’t drive out there. We investigated on foot and discovered campsite oasis on the beach by the lake. Alas it was too far to carry our gigantic ‘Palace’ tent and all our gear, and the car would be too far away for comfort. It was getting quite late so, disappointed, we headed back to town to find somewhere else to stay. We had met a friendly Kazakh in one of the magazines (shops) so thought we would ask him for advice in the hope he would say “Come and stay at my place!”.
On our way to the magazine we bumped into Julia outside her mother’s clothing store. We asked her if she knew of a cheap place to stay. She spoke with her mother and the old lady in the bakery next door. They spoke in rapid Russian, the old lady got on the phone, and within five minutes we jumped in our car with Julia and followed her dad through what must be the bumpiest back streets in the world. We arrived at a Russian style hostel owned by a big friendly Russian man. Thank goodness we’d had Julia and her dad’s help, there is no way we could have found it on our own. Julia acted as translator as we did a tour of the guesthouse and the owner apologised for not being able to speak to us in English. We apologised for our lack of Russian. We thanked Julia and her father for their help, added each other on Facebook, and said goodbye.
The next morning we went back into the national park and hired a row boat. A row boat seems like a simple vessel to manoeuvre but for some reason this was just not that case for Chuck and I. After a slow and shaky start we eventually got out into the lake, where we went round and round in circles for a while before giving up and going back in, by some miracle avoiding collision with the other vessels on the water. We assumed it must be surely down the faulty oars and not our lack of skill.
Six times around the rock
After a couple of hours lazing on the beach we headed to what appeared to be a popular stop off at a tall monument. We followed the crowd into the forest to a large fenced-off rock guarded by a man in army uniform. We watched as everyone who approached started walking around the rock in a circle. Unsure as to why, but obviously the thing to do when one comes across a guarded rock, we joined the crowd and started doing laps of the rock. How many times were you meant to walk around this rock? We had no idea so we followed a girl who had started her walk one lap ahead of us. We got to the fifth lap and were beginning to think perhaps we would walk around this rock forever, but after the sixth lap she stopped, took a photo and left. Thank goodness, we were getting a bit bored of rock circling! We later learnt the rock is known as Ablai Khan’s Throne. Ablai Khan was one of the great warriors of Kazakh history and it seems walking around his throne six times brings good luck!
After a sunset hike into the forest to look for deer and other critters, it was time to explore the lively town of Burabay. There were kafes and bars everywhere and with the centre of town a short walk from our guesthouse we were spoilt for choice. It seems the tiny town of Burabay is party central on the weekend, not what we had expected at all! We walked ten minutes down the road and spent the evening pub crawling our way back. Everywhere we looked there were Russians and Kazakhs having a great time dancing, eating and drinking. It was a fantastic atmosphere, everyone was super friendly and we had a fabulous evening to top off a beautiful day!
Early the next morning as we drove out of Burabay we were stopped by the police. In Kazakhstan when you’re pulled over you must get into the police car for your documents to be checked and, if you’ve done something wrong, bribes to be paid or tickets processed. So I went over and hopped into the back of the police car with three police officers inside.
“Where are you from?” they asked.
“Ahh kangaroo!” they responded with laughter. “Ahh piva, piva!”One of them flicked his neck with his thumb (the sign for drinking) “Piva karasho?” (You Aussies like drinking beer is basically what he was getting at!) I laughed and could only agree. Then they told me they were going to arrest me.
“As long as it’s just for the day” I said.
“Yes” said the young officer in the front. “We will arrest you and you can be my girlfriend!”
It was a tempting offer, but I apologised and told him I already had a boyfriend. We chatted for a while longer, they asked me about the car, where we were going and my opinions on Kazakhstan. Then I received a kiss on the hand and was free to go on my way. It was definitely one of my more interesting encounters with police, let’s hope the rest are just as joyous and friendly!