Thursday, July 17, 2014

DAY 31 – 16 July 2014; Asthana to Kostanay

When I was in Almaty Ali connected me to the Indian Ambassador to Kazakhstan – Ashok Kumar Sharma. It turned out that we are batch mates, with plenty to recall from the days in the Administrative Academy in Mussoorie. Ashok told me that I should drop into his house when I arrived into Astana. The early morning arrival spiked the plan. I gave him a call in the morning and he requested me to drop in at the Embassy after 9.30 am. Well that was also not to be since Geniya and Bek got ready early and suggested that we should get on the road earlier than planned. The late night, rather early morning, arrival into the hotel meant that much less rest. More bothersome was the gnawing hunger. I could not wait till the time we had decided to meet for breakfast. It was very cold outside and a couple of forays to the car to load my luggage and clean up the windshield and headlights made me hungrier. By 7 am I was already on the second cup of coffee. Pancakes, cakes, bread, boiled eggs, salami and sausage were quickly feasted on. We were ready to leave the beautiful city of Astana, which we did not get any time to explore, before 9 am. Within a short distance of leaving the hotel a traffic policeman waved down both the cars. He told us to clean the number plates. The journey through rain filled ditches and dusty roads the previous night had made the cars almost unrecognizable. Geniya and I used wet wipes to do what the policeman wanted. Further up, at a police check post, we were waved down again. When we told the policeman, who identified himself as the Captain of the Traffic Police, that we are from India he mentioned Mithun Chakraborthy and asked us to get on. However, Geniya and Bek had some prolonged paperwork to get done before we hit the highway.

Kazakhstan is a huge country and is one of the two landlocked countries that span Asia and Europe. It is also the world’s largest landlocked country by size, which is larger than Western Europe. The terrain of the country includes flatlands, snow capped mountains, steppes, rock canyons and deserts. However, with a density of population of 6 per square kilometer vast areas lie unoccupied and bare. The total population of Kazakhstan is less than 18 million. The capital of the country was shifted from Almaty to Astana in 1997. The essentially nomadic country is home to as many as 130 ethnicities. The major religion is Islam (70%) with Christians occupying 26% of the religious space. While the national language is Kazakh, Russian occupies equal status in matters administrative and official. The country came under the sway of Chengiz Khan in the 13th century and under the Soviets in late 19th century. It gained independence in 1991 and has been a unitary republic since then with Nursultan Nurabayev as President. The country is rich in mineral and fossil fuels. Its balanced foreign policy has seen substantial inflows of foreign investment over the past years.

We had a 700 km drive across vast open flatlands and an unchanging landscape. We took the Atbashar, Ecil route piloted by Geniya. By 2.15 we stopped for lunch from where our destination was another 300 kms away. Geniya detected some problem with the car and decided to set that right before moving on further. The wait was more than 2 hours. Geniya left Bek in our company to help us order some lunch. When we asked Bek what the problem with the car is he turned on his translator and came up with, “The problem is with Candles”, which we figured out could be lights. Hence, Lal Jose mimed and made Bek understand the difference between candles and bulbs! For lunch I had a lamb soup – it had a humongous piece of lamb, almost as big as the bowl. The soup was served with home made bread. I used the rest of the time to write up the blog posts. When I went out later to get some stuff from the car I found a large group of huge Russians around the car trying to figure out the route. When they saw me they wanted pictures to be taken and questions to be answered. The former I did without any hassle but the latter was a bother for they spoke Russian and were sloshed on Vodka! A couple of them gave me bear hugs which I feared would not end for they found it tough to untangle after the hug, maybe the effect of the Vodka.


The small garage that Geniya had taken the car to seemed to have attended to the problem capably but it was Bek who managed to get most of the stuff done. It is when Bek was attending to the problem that we realised what he meant by Candles – they were spark plugs. The joke was once again on us! The drive from Ecil to Kostanay was smooth and trouble free. We got into Kostanay by 8.30 pm; the sun was blindingly hot! It did take us some time to locate the hotel where Ali had made bookings. But when we got there we were greeted by Mariya at the reception with flawless English.


We had a large Family Room to ourselves, which comprised of two bedrooms. Once we had put our luggage in there it was time to polish off the Vivita Vodka that we had been carrying with us since Naryn. With fruit juices it went down smoothly to make us happy and relaxed. At 10.30 pm Bek called to say that the car should be taken for a wash. Baiju graciously took on the responsibility and I continued to get certain logistics arrangements in place for the rest of the journey. By 11 pm Lal and I went down to the restaurant and were told that we could have only Salads for dinner. We ordered beef, chicken and fish salads with a large quantity of local vodka. We were joined by Geniya and Bek later. The young waiter, who too spoke excellent English, accommodated our request for two more salads despite the kitchen being closed. He was in line for a large tip.

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