I had set the alarm for 3.30 am since Ali had promised to reach the hotel by 4.30 am to pick up our excess baggage. But when I woke up it was an hour past the wake up time. However, I hurried up to get ready in about 20 minutes. When I reached the lobby with the luggage Ali, Elvis and Alex were already near the car with Lal and Baiju. They helped with rearranging the luggage in the car. Elvis took over the responsibility of disposing off the oxygen cylinders. Geniya took the extra fuel cans. Lal and I had an extra bag each. Along with the Chemical Toilet we handed over the extra bags to Ali to be sent to Cochin at his convenience. Ali, Alex and Baiju signed the Campaign Poster and stuck the green dot against Kazakhstan. Finally, we rolled on at 5.30 am with Geniya and his friend Bek piloting us. It was an emotional moment bidding goodbye to those wonderful guys who had made us totally at ease in a foreign land in a short while. Their hospitality and warmth will remain with us always. This has been the experience wherever we have been – Jethi and Arvind in India, Mohan and Abhay in Nepal, Yingchu in China, Alexander, Raveendrans, Ajayan and Mrs and Mr. Khobragde in Kyrgyzstan and now these gentlemen in Kazakhstan. One feels happy and comforted at the same time when you know that these are kindred souls that travel with you in time and space.
Geniya is a superb guy but almost impossible to communicate with due to his lack of understanding of English; or our lack of understanding of his language, as he would see it! But Bek found a way around it. We had driven for about three hours when Geniya decided to stop for breakfast. There was a row of small stalls and none of them was busy. We parked in front of one and a huge lady barely turned her head to acknowledge our visit to her stall. It was only Geniya who could stir her up, literally. The menu being in the local language and our companions completely foxed by our words and gestures I wondered how we would get to the eating stage after the challenge of placing the order. That is when Bek came up with his mobile application; a language conversion app. He would speak into his phone in his language and it would show on screen its version in English. It was a major discovery and communication barrier was breached. It did throw up hilarious translations at time. Wanting to say that he had recharged my mobile he held up a message on his mobile, “Have thrown money in phone”! He was grinning from ear to ear and I was at a loss for words not knowing what he actually meant. Then Geniya said, “Speak” and I understood what he had wanted to convey. In another instance he showed me a message which read, “Disconnect high beam” – he was telling me not to use high beam; once you are on the highway in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia you have to keep the headlights on irrespective of the time of day.
We ordered a big plate of Koordak – lamb chunks with potato and onion – bread and chai. In a short while, what would have been an aged and lazy animal was put in a plate for us to address it. It was difficult but when you are hungry the antecedents of the stuff that goes into making the meal matters very little. Chai is had in small bowls – a smaller version of the erstwhile ‘koppa’. Black tea is the norm. Lemon, sugar and milk are offered separately.
I was warned to be careful with the fuel stations. Ali and Elvis gave special instructions to Geniya in this regard. Therefore, Geniya would stop almost every 300 kms at trusted fuel stations. Diesel fuel cost 115 KZT, the equivalent of about INR 39, per litre. Most of the fuel stations have well stocked stores attached to them. Most stations do not have attendants. Prepayment is compulsory at some stations. The balance amount is refunded if not fully used. Quality seemed to be alright, if not good, since the mileage improved as compared to India.
We stopped at about 3.30 pm for lunch. Geniya was tasked with the responsibility of ordering appropriately for all of us. Lal and Baiju requested for rice and I ordered macaroni. The food came in good time with pork chunks, bread and fish salad. Tea and Pancakes with milkmaid made the meal thoroughly filling. Lal and Baiju could not get even half their portions in. one common factor with all restaurants is that they do not have even half of what can be called a toilet. The restaurant will be well done up with pretty waitresses doing a competent job. However, it is next to impossible to get them to understand even a few words of English – the only word they understand is Toilet, but they have precious little to offer on that score.
We did not stop any place for dinner hoping that we would reach the destination early. En route we stopped at a few places for bio-breaks and even to photograph a camel. It was windy and cold; so much so that we had to retrieve left over woollens. We reached the hotel in Astana only by 1 am after travelling 1213 kms – the longest drive in the entire journey. It was tiring and enervating. The Hotel Duman is a lovely property, but certainly not value for money. It did not even have a sachet of tea. Before turning in for the night we decided on a 9 am start the next day.