Amazing hospitality and orange police batons
Kazakhstan, our first Stan of the trip, and Jude’s first Stan ever, and we enter with excited, but nervous anticipation. We’ve read about the hospitality Kazakhstan is so famous for, but also about their ever-present police force with orange batons. Keen to make an extra bit of cash when they can… Will it be true or are these stories, about hospitality and orange batons, hugely exaggerated? We were to find out soon.
Our border crossing from Russia into Kazakhstan couldn’t have been easier or more pleasant. It was fast, efficient and on both the Russian and Kazakh side we were lucky enough to find English speakers to help us out. The Kazakh lady at passport control was very chatty and helpful, a great start. She even took the time to teach us ‘hello’, ‘good-bye’ and ‘thank you’ in Kazakh (‘saliem’, ‘saubol’ and ‘rajmijet’). She also told us we would have to register our visa with the immigration police within 5 days otherwise we’d be in trouble. This is something that happens automatically when you fly in, but not when you cross by car.
Finding the immigration police to register became our first mission. We decided to try our luck at the first town instead of waiting until we reached Astana, hoping it would be easier to find and register in a smaller town. Finding the immigration police was easy in Pavlodar, and thanks to the help of Violet, the registration process was possible. She spoke fluent English, immediately offered her help with translating when she realized we didn’t speak any Kazakh or Russian, offered her address to register us (the officer wouldn’t accept a random hotel address) and filled in all the paperwork we needed (as they were only written in Russian)!
As we were hungry when we left the immigration police, we decided to go to a café for lunch before buying our sim card – our other job in Pavlodar. Unfortunately Violet couldn’t join us, but as we were having our lunch Baurzhan came to our table and said “Welcome to Kazakhstan”. We had a quick chat, he was there with his dad Yerken and some more family members and after we finished our meal they came over to prove that the famous Kazakh hospitality truly exists!
Baurzhan first took us to a mobile phone centre to help us get our sim card, making the process smooth and simple. And that night we stayed in their family home. As Jon was really keen to try the local specialty they were talking about – beshbarmak (horse meat boiled on the bone and horse meat sausages with layers of pasta and boiled onion rings), they even called a restaurant to book it for that night (it takes quite a few hours to prepare). More family joined us for dinner making it an amazing night spent with lovely people in a gorgeous restaurant where the room looked like the interior of a yurt. They made us feel extremely welcome and at home, and also showed us (though not by choice) the orange batons are not exaggerated either.
Showing us the sights of Pavlodar in their car, Baurzhan accidentally drove into a street where you’re not allowed to drive after 10PM due to street racing problems. Immediately an orange baton (lit up at night) was flashed at us and we were pulled over by the cops. Luckily he came off lightly with only a warning, but we realised we need to be careful in Kazakhstan.
They taught us a huge amount of Kazakh history and interesting facts about Kazakh life which goes back a long time to the origins of the 3 clans. Even today a young couple who want to get married must make sure they have no grandfathers shared for 7 generations!
The next morning we spent with Baurzhan in Pavlodar before we sadly had to move on again, but not until we had had lunch in a cozy café with traditional home-cooked food somewhere in the back streets of Pavlodar, sharing a table with strangers as seats became available in the busy place. It was decorated with USSR memorabilia and even a Lenin statue inside. Great!
To make sure we would have no problems leaving Pavlodar, Baurzhan followed us in his car until we were past the police check across the bridge. Every town seems to have these police checks where traffic is forced to a crawl and they can stop you at random. Just to check your papers or if they think they have spotted something wrong.
From Pavlodar we drive to Astana, which means capital in Kazakh. The president decided he wanted to move the capital there (it used to be Almaty until 1997) and has turned a small provincial town into the new Dubai with many building projects on the go. Our bikes come off the back again (first time since Beijing!) for a tour of Astana. We cycle to:
- Khan Shatyr – a huge tent style shopping centre, impressive but not our thing apart from the icecream place.
- the huge flag pole and Atameken – a sad copy of Madurodam where they show a miniature Kazakhstan, fun to walk around but it all looked a bit neglected. Jon loved it though as it has many miniature models of all sorts of oil and gas fields from the entire country on display.
- Baiterek Tower – a sort of crystal ball in a tower where you can go up to the top for a view over the city.
We also walked along the wide boulevards and cycled along the river where we saw a group of K1’s (kayaks) paddle past. All very pleasant with lots of impressive and imposing buildings.
Our first stop in Astana was the Tajikistan embassy though, to see if we could get our visa here, but they referred us to the consul-general in Almaty. And we also needed to find a garage to fix a bad leak in the radiator hose (more damage due to the bumpy Mongolian tracks?). It happened on the way to Astana, luckily Jon noticed it otherwise we might have blown the engine! To our surprise we are told to go to the Land Rover garage around the corner when we stop at a random garage – we didn’t even know there was one in Astana.
As usual they are extremely helpful, have English speaking staff to help translate and get to the job immediately. It will take a few hours, but they think they’ll have it finished by that night, giving us time to explore Astana and even have time for a cuppa at a café. Turns out the managing director is an Aussie character called Mike with a very interesting life story, we’re looking forward to seeing him again in Almaty where Lara is booked in for her next 10.000km service.