We woke up to red-pants-dragon-lady smacking on our doors yelling in Russian for us to get up and off the ship. It was 4:30am. James and Patrick had slept up on the deck again as their room was a sauna. James came downstairs telling Haylee and Natalie, "it's absolutely freezing out there". The temperature had changed dramatically overnight, however, we were expecting a hot change once the sun was up. We packed up our things and loaded them into our cars, then all the teams were asked to get off the ferry via the ramp. We stood around for a while in a huddle surrounded by guards. Someone remarked that it felt like we were all going to be shot; bloody well hope not! Finally a white van came along and the guards ushered people inside to be transported to passport control. Once in the building we lined up to have our passports checked and stamped. Every one of us ralliers looked completely zombified.
Trying to explain the process of customs at Aktau ferry port is like trying to explain to an alien how Trump came into power. The more you try to make sense of it the more confused you become. We started off buying insurance for our car which didn't end up to be too painful. All the teams lined up at a desk and handed over car documents to two blokes who very slowly entered our details into a computer system, then printed off an official document for us to keep. This took around thirty minutes. We then had to walk over to a small building which was a bank. Here, we had to pay for road tax. It was a relief that all the teams were going through this process together, everyone would either make the same mistakes or get through pain free. For majority of us though it was mistake after mistake. All up we were there for around three hours figuring out which damn stamp we needed next. While standing in the bank line where we needed to get a road tax stamp we had the window shut on us. The woman told us ralliers that it was now her breakfast time and she would be off for an hour. An whole hour! Just to eat breakfast? There wasn't much we could do about the situation. Four of us teams had missed out on getting the road tax stamp because of this woman's breakfast break. Patrick and Haylee decided to try their luck at getting some of the other forms stamped in the meantime. They went to the officials office and waited thirty minutes to be seen. A photocopier had been placed in the corner of the roo, for everyone to get all their documents copied ready for the staff to stamp. Haylee went to the window while Pat ran back to the bank lady as it was nearly time for her break to be over. The bloke at the window didn't speak any English but filled in the for, we hopefully needed to leave the country. Finally an official looking red stamp was placed on the form so Haylee went back over to Pat to sort the bank road tax stamp out. Once we got that stamp we tried to leave. We showed the border guards all our papers but they said we were still missing a stamp. Grr! Can't win. Other Rally teams were running all over the place also trying to figure out which stamps they were missing by comparing the forms they'd completed. We worked out we were missing a stamp from the official building we were in earlier. Stamps all done we went back to the guards at the boom gate and presented all our forms. We were approved to drive through the border! Finally! All the teams had heard from our mate Henry (whose from the UK but lives in Kazakhstan) that Burger King is open 24/7. That settled it, we were going to Burger King for some sort of breakfast/lunch thingy as it was now 10am.
We drove directly to Burger King and were glad to see the Honeymoon team and the three boys in the UK team from the ferry. Every was quite ravenous and got straight into their meals.
We said goodbye to Team Honeymoon; quite sad they couldn't continue with us. They're plan was to drive up to Aktobe then head south to the Aral sea. We also planned to go to Aktobe but then continue east across to Astana. Also we weren't planning to leave that afternoon whereas they were. We figured we'd chill in Aktau for a night and recover from the ferry with a nice shower and proper bed. We said goodbye hoping we might see some of the teams in Mongolia.
We figured we'd need some wifi to figure out where to stay for the evening so drove to a takeaway place called Astana and grabbed a soft drink. On the way we also went via a sports store to get some tennis balls. We'd heard from another Italian team that tennis balls can be put in the springs to upgrade the suspension. Not sure which mechanic would do it for us but worth buying to see if it can be done. The sports store we went to couldn't believe we wanted sixteen tennis balls. They actually had to go out the back to get a bunch more. Tennis balls and wifi in hand we booked accommodation at a place in Dostar. The main reason we'd booked it was because of the amazing pool photos they had. And it only worked out to be $30 and each for the night. Living like kings and queens here! Walking up to the hotel entrance we could hear music pumping and see cabanas everywhere. Just the break we needed! The pool was full of guests and the hotel was actually situated on the beach. Yes you heard us right, there's a beach in Kazakhstan, and not a bad one at that! We eyed off the bar right next to the pool and went to go dump our things in the rooms.
Haylee found a team on the mongol rally Whatsapp group that explained the road from Beyneu to Aktobe was absolutely terrible. They done it the day before and wanted to warn all other teams of how bad it was. Apparently their car had barely made it and the dirt road from Beyneu to Aktobe is full of holes. This team had driven only 100kms in 5hrs. This had made the decision for us that we would need to do a whole re-route of our itinerary. We weren't willing to risk our car to get to Aktobe quicker. We all gathered in the guys room and placed James' large paper map on the bed. It looked like we could still travel from Aktau to Beyneu and then have to drive west to Atyrau. Then we'd go north to Oral and then head east to Aktobe. It would mean we'd be another day out from our itinerary, but better than having our car destroyed on the Kazakhstan road of death. We tried our best to contact our mates from the Honeymoon, UK and Swedish team who would be making their way to this terrible road today. We wanted to warm them but unfortunately couldn't get through, they might have already been out of wifi and data zone. Picturing them on the road of death got us quite worried. Their cars would likely not make it to Mongolia if they tried to drive for over fifteen hours on potholes the size of Tasmania.
We had to find somewhere which might put the tennis balls in our springs so Haylee and Patrick went to the hotel front desk to get a locals opinion. Fifteen minutes later they were driving to a nearby mechanic. James and Natalie stayed back at the hotel to hold the fort. The mechanic excursion proved to be quite a fun experience. The blokes there spoke no English and thought we were mental when we showed them photos of someone else's suspension being upgraded with tennis balls. It was obvious from the looks on their faces that they'd never done this sort of thing before. The guys thought we'd only bought four tennis balls as that's what we initially showed them, we then pulled out twelve more and they said "okay!" They'd do it for us for $100usd. The unfortunate thing was they would need to take four hours to do the job as they had a whole bunch of other cars there. We opted to jump in a taxi and go back to the hotel instead of waiting around. Twenty minutes later our whole team was in the pool enjoying a relaxing afternoon swim. We ordered a few cocktails and beers; definitely a massive change from the conditions of the ferry. We needed to treat ourselves just this once before heading off on the second half of our trip. Kazakhstan was proving to be totally the opposite of what we'd expected. In fact our only source of info on Kazakhstan and its culture was the film Borat. We definitely hadn't encountered anyone that vaguely even looked like Borat and the areas we'd gone through looked incredibly different to what was in the film. After a few drinks and a swim in the pool Haylee and Pat returned to the mechanics to pick up Miss Panda. She looked fantastic with her tennis ball addition. They'd done a fantastic job. The guys there told us (through google translate) that our brake fluid was very poor and they could fix it up for us. We also explained to them that our clutch fluid was quite bad and they went ahead and fixed that too. When it came time to pay we found out they hadn't even charged us for these extras. They even explained to us that they'd stayed back overtime to do our car. Legends! We explained our big trip to them then got the manager Nikolai and his two staff members to sign our boxing kangaroo flag. We gave them all a little koala and a packet of cigarettes. Nikolai then went rummaging through a box and found two non-slip surface dashboard mats with the brand Buick on them. He tried to find a Fiat one but didn't have it. We took some photos with our awesome Kazakh mechanics then went on our way back to the hotel.
We decided to just have dinner at the hotel in the restaurant. A young woman came over to us after we'd finished dinner with a baby that looked around 8 months old. She had very broken English but asked if we'd hold her baby while she went to the bathroom. She was dancing around showing us that she really needed to go. Natalie took the little baby girl and we were all smitten. She was really cute. Our new Rally team mate! We can use her to get sympathy from mechanics to fix our car. Ten minutes later the mother returned, she took the baby but came back in tears a few minutes later. She didn't speak enough English to explain why she was crying but we gave her a phone to type it into google translate. She told us that her husband has left her and she has her little baby. She had dinner at the restaurant but now needed some cash to cover it. We weren't really sure what was happening but told her we couldn't really help out. Our scam alarm bells were ringing but we couldn't quite tell if she was genuine or not. It was quite convenient that she'd asked us to hold the baby so we were all smitten then cry and ask us for money. Babies are always the way to someone's heart. She went and sat down quite distressed. Later on she asked some of the restaurant staff to hold the baby while she made a bunch of phone calls. It was starting to look like she was genuine so we had a discussion about giving her some cash. Before we could though she packed up her stuff and spoke with the restaurant staff then left. Curiosity was getting the better of us so Natalie went over and chatted with the waiters. The story we figured out was that she is a regular at the resort (anyone can come and go from the pool and bar for a fee). She visits almost every day by herself or with her partner but her partners family really dislikes her and the baby. There's a bit of a family feud on. She has a lot of fights with the partner and that night was a particularly bad one. So our night concluded with a tiny addition to the team who then left with her distressed mother. Good luck to the pair, we hope things settle down a bit for the little ones sake.