The Mongol Rally: Crossing the Kazakh Steppe
After a testing five-day, 2000 mile crossing of the arid Kazakh Steppe, I am writing from Aral in Southern Kazakhstan.
Aral is a small fishing village situated on the northeastern shores of the inland Aral Sea. Today, however, there is no water in sight. During the Stalin years, Aral suffered the collapse of its major industry – fishing – at the hands of collectivization, the agricultural policy pursued by Stalin between 1928 and 1940.
The waters of the Aral Sea and its vital river sources were diverted for irrigation of cotton fields with catastrophic consequences. The Aral Sea shrank to 75 percent of its former surface and lost 80 percent of its water.
Native species of fish and other marine life were wiped out. The waters of the Aral Sea now lie 70-100 km away and the town has still not recovered. Fishing boats lie unused on the parched sea bed.
For us, Aral was primarily a rest stop. The blistering heat of the Kazakh Steppe and the treacherous terrain made for an exhausting but exhilarating crossing. We entered Kazakhstan at the border between Astrakhan and Atyrau.
We navigated the car across a flimsy floating pontoon bridge that was made of oil drums strapped together with metal girders. It was essential to move slowly and steadily, to avoid the bridge from swaying and upsetting the passage of smaller vehicles and motorbikes behind us.
Western Kazakhstan is home of the country’s oil industry, with Atyrau serving as the launch point to the major reserves such as the Tengiz oil field on the northeastern shores of the Caspian Sea.
The surrounding landscape is sandy and arid, with camels roaming between telephone poles and oil derricks. As we pushed north from Atyrau, we entered the desert of central Kazakhstan. We drove for days without passing a village or town and the land was so barren and dry that it could not support even small herds of grazing livestock.
During the day, the heat of the Steppe was crippling. At over 40 degrees, heat hazes streaked along the horizon and there was no tree or shade as far as the eye could see. The nights, though cooler, were too hot for sleeping in the tent. Instead we rolled out our mats on the open ground and slept under the clear starry sky.
Navigating the dirt tracks that criss-cross central Kazakhstan was tricky because of the lack of landmarks on the plain and the off-road surface of the tracks tested our car to its limits. More than once, our car got stuck in the sand with the tyres swerving and skidding, unable to grip the fine, dust-like sand.
We pushed the car from behind and when that didn’t work we tried sitting on the hood in the hope of weighing down the front of the car to help the wheels gain traction. Eventually a passing freight truck – the only traffic we saw along this track – stopped to haul our car out of the sand and towed us on to firmer ground.
Later the same day, our car beached on a sand drift. The sand was over our axles and the only solution was to dig our way out, despite the relentless and scorching sun.
That day, progress was slow. Luckily we had planned well and had extra water and petrol with us to last till we reached Aral. Tonight, we look forward to some much needed rest and we set off tomorrow for Shymkhent.
(More posts from the Mongol Rally here)