Friday August 4th - Kindness from Kazakh strangers
We ate breakfast together at the hotel, it was looking like the day would be another hot one. Aktau was forecast to reach 36 degrees.
James has been feeling quite unwell the past few days. His stomach isn't agreeing on the food we've been eating. James mentioned to the team that he wasn't sure if he wanted to continue on with the journey. He said trekking into the desert with a bad stomach bug wasn't his idea of fun. It took some convincing but we managed to talk him into a visit to a local pharmacy to find some medication. The ladies at the front desk of the hotel were happy to recommend a good pharmacy. We met two Romanian blokes at the hotel foyer who were doing our Mongolian journey but in reverse. They're actually travelling on motorbikes though! "What are the roads like in Kazakhstan?" "They're good in some areas" they replied. "The roads that you'll be driving on in Mongolia though are terrible! They are just the worst roads ever." Thanks guys, extremely encouraging.
We packed the car and drove a few minutes down the road to the pharmacy. Our French friends in their decked out army truck were still parked on the beach.
The pharmacy proved to be quite difficult until a wonderful local woman entered the shop who spoke Russian and English. She asked James what his symptoms were then told the staff we needed some antibiotics and probiotics. Without her we would have been awkwardly trying to sign language to the staff gastro symptoms.
Medications in hand we walked out and set on our way to find a tyre repair shop. Our front left tyre has a significant bulge in it which could turn nasty for us so we needed to get a tyre replacement. We pulled into one tyre place which didn't have the size we needed so left to find another. We filled up on petrol at a servo; Haylee went to have a chat to the attendant to see if any other tyre places were nearby. The female attendant called out for her husband to have a chat with Haylee despite not speaking any English. Haylee used google translate to tell him about our situation. He had a look at the tyre then pointed on Haylee's phone map where we could go. Amazingly he then signalled that he would drive and have us follow him to the tyre place. We jumped in the car and followed him for five minutes until we arrived. It was a large place with plenty of cars being fixed up already. The staff came and had a look our car tyre. Our friend spoke with the staff for us, he said they could do the car in two hours but they don't have new tyres there. They would simply fix up the bulge in our tyre. If we wanted a new one we'd have to go look around the city and buy one. We explained that we needed to do a lot of driving today and were in a rush, he told the staff this who replied we could wait half an hour and they would get started on the car but they still wouldn't be able to give us a new tyre. We went along with the tyre repair option in the hope that we'd get a new tyre in another city further along in our trip. Our friend who had guided us there then went to the admin window and pulled out some cash notes. We thought that maybe he was bribing them a bit to get things moving so we could leave quickly. He walked back over and wrote on google translate, "I have paid for your tyre repair. Have a great trip!" What an absolute legend! He didn't want anything from us at all, he simply paid for us because he's a top bloke. James gave him a packet of cigarettes for his trouble. We moved our car into the corner of the work yard.
A man pulled in with his Landrover and walked over to admire our tiny car. He didn't speak any English but got the general gist that we were going to Mongolia. He didn't look typically Kazakh, he had some sort of Arab background. As neither of us could understand one another our new friend whipped out his phone and started using google translate. Where on earth would we be without our phones and the glorious invention of google translate?! We were able to tell him why on earth we were driving such a small piece of shite one third across the world. We also explained about Youth Off The Streets and how we're doing the rally for charity, we told him we're doing the rally to help homeless children back in Australia. This really moved him. So much so that he asked "I would like to help you. How can I help you?" We weren't sure what to say but we were a bit hungry so told him "you could take us out for lunch somewhere?" He was beaming when we said this and replied, "okay!" He then kept saying we were going to get "yum yum!" The staff at the repair shop were also amused by this and kept saying "yum yum" as well. He asked on google translate, "what cuisine do you like to eat?" James replied on behalf of us all, "we like to eat chicken and beef dishes". Our friend laughed and mimicked James, "chiiggeenn". He then typed on google translate that they call women 'chicks' in Kazakhstan, James replied "in Australia we also call girls 'chicks.'" We'd found some common ground with our new mate. This made our friend laugh a lot. We found out his name was Shamil. We'd so far had a complete stranger pay for our tyre repair and now we had a bloke wanting to take us out to lunch. Kazakhstan is a bloody awesome country.
Of course we couldn't drive our own car so we jumped in his beautiful Landrover. Leather seats, air con, tonnes of space, sat nav. We were in complete luxury. It felt extremely surreal sitting in a different car to our own tin can. We'd all forgotten what it's like to have air con. He drove us around town until we reached a kebab place. Once inside he told us to order whatever we liked. We felt like kids in a candy shop. The place was somewhat of a buffet and had a number of dishes to choose from. We all sat down and tucked into our food. Shamil started asking us what cars we drive back at home. He hi-fived us if we had a Toyota; obviously his favourite as the pieces of clothing he was wearing were all Toyota labelled. Shamil told us he works in oil and didn't have work today,; quite a good coincidence he'd met us then! We noticed our new friend saying 'inshallah' a lot (God willing), when his phone went off and he explained it was to remind him of prayer time we discovered he was quite a devout a Muslim. Quite interesting considering three of us on the team are devout Catholics. We'd met Shamil though who was top bloke and a Muslim, no differences between despite our religions. Simply the kindness of humans looking after one another. Shamil pointed to Natalie and asked if she was American. We told him no, we were all Australian. He kept explaining that he thinks Natalie looks like an American, no idea how he got that impression! He also kept pointing at Pat and saying "national geographic" whenever Pat would speak into his phone for google to translate. He thought Pat had a very professional voice. Unfortunately for James his Aussie accent was a bit too much for google translate at times and we got some very funny sentences coming out.
After lunch Shamil explained that he would really like to take us for cake and coffee. We were in a big rush but felt terrible turning him down. He was really enjoying our company and he obviously was supposed to be having his car fixed at the tyre place but skipped on that to feed us. We agreed to coffee and cake and went across the road. Shamil didn't even end up eating any cake, he was just us to try the yummy stuff at his favourite cafe. Shamil pointed to Haylee and said she looks like an actor he knows of; he couldn't remember the name but said she's in a movie where they all go camping and then people start getting killed. Huh?! That sounds very much like what we'll be doing on the second half of our trip, minus the killing we hope. Shamil explained to us that he was born in Azerbaijan but his family moved to Russia. They were treated very badly in Russia. Shamil kept explaining that he didn't like Putin and when he started taking about Crimea he would lower his voice to a barely audible whisper. Very interesting to see his concern about being overheard on these topics. He showed us a video of him being interviewed by Kazakh news telling his story about leaving Russia. We finally told Shamil that we really needed to return to our car as the clock was ticking and it was well into the afternoon now. Before we returned though Shamil did us a huge favour and took us to buy a SIM card. To add to his top bloke status he even paid for the two SIM cards for us! He wouldn't take any money from us the whole day.
Once back at the tyre repair shop the staff were excited to show us a massive truck tyre out the back. They'd done a really good job fixing the bulge. We could barely even find where it was. Haylee gave Shamil an Australian tea towel with a map on it plus a little Koala. He went over to his car and brought back some Muslim prayer beads which he gave to Natalie and Haylee. Shamil became really enthusiastic and asked if he could go pick up his son from school and bring him over to meet us. His son was five years old he explained and in Kindergarten. We really couldn't afford to spend any more time in Aktau, we needed to hit the road. We compromised and told Shamil we'd follow him to the school and meet his little son there. Five mins later we were at the school meeting his adorable son. Haylee gave his boy a few little trinkets she'd bought from Sydney. After taking an awesome selfie we finally went on our way, we thanked Shamil for his incredible kindness. He gave us directions on how to exit the city and wished us luck in our journey. What a brilliant start to our time in Kazakhstan; a country that we only knew as a weird Hollywood comedy.
Our drive out of the city was interesting. We saw plenty of camels and horses on the side of the road. Occasionally we'd drive on a beautiful paved road, then suddenly have to turn off it to drive on a shite dirt road. The annoying thing was we were driving next to a road that was new finish and perfectly paved. It seemed this would be our rude introduction to Kazakh roads, that is, we'd always be teased into driving next to near finished roads. Bouncing along the dirt road we could only look longingly at the beautiful paved one right next to us. We stopped at a supermarket to get what we affectionately call a mongol rally 'supermarket dinner'. Haylee and Natalie both enjoyed a nutritious ice cream for their dinner. We were quite used to those by now; sometime we don't pass through any decent downs that have restaurants so it's down to a 'servo dinner' or 'supermarket dinner'. Onward we drove trying to reach a town called Beyneu. We stopped to take a quick sunset photo of the car then continued further. We were running super low on petrol at around 11pm so had to pull over and fill the car up with a jerry can as we were literally in the middle of nowhere. Finally we arrived in Beyneu at 12:30am. We were spoilt for choice with a total of two hotels in the whole town. The one we stayed at had some nice young staff members. They were quite intrigued and kept taking selfies with the four of us. We were probably the only ever Australians to have ever stayed there. Finally we were off to bed after a fantastic day in Kazakhstan, our faith in humanity completely restored!
(this is what Kazakh council workers wear; freaky we know)
(roadside fuel stop)