India Insight

The Mongol Rally: Siberia

The Mongol Rally: SiberiaThe morning brought good news. We were closer to Semey, a large town near the Russian border than we thought. There was still the issue of how to get our half-broken-down car there.

(To read earlier posts from Mongol Rally, click here)

It was time to put our knowledge of off-road driving to the test and manoeuvre the car as lightly and gently as possible over the potholes to the safety of a garage.

The sight of a gaggle of sunburnt, shirtless mechanics smoking on a garage driveway was a relief. It took the combined intelligence of the three members of my rally team and four Kazakh mechanics to communicate, mostly using sign language, what was wrong with the car.

The dusty back windscreen of the car became a handy blackboard as we agreed a price. We were ushered into a roadside café to wait while the repair work was done and snacked on savoury doughnut/dumplings stuffed with ground meat. Evidently it was a local favourite as we had been eating it for lunch and dinner ever since we arrived in Kazakhstan.

About an hour later, we were back on the road with a new set of suspension springs and a new spare tyre. The car felt good and we crossed the border into Russia later that afternoon without incident.

The Mongol Rally: Return to the Desert

We left Almaty feeling refreshed and ready for the road ahead, knowing we would face another tough stint on the open and deserted roads of Kazakhstan. Open Road

Unlike the low-lying desert basin of Central Kazakhstan, the northern and eastern regions gently rise up to a high altitude plateau that extends east into Russia, China and Mongolia. The grass here was longer and greener and gentle hills were faintly visible in the distance.

We were heading for a town called Semey, about 1,000 miles away on the border with Russia. We were nearing the 6,000 mile mark in our journey – two thirds of the way to Mongolia – and our car was beginning to struggle.

The Mongol Rally: The Southern Cities

The southeastern region of Kazakhstan is a cluster of historic cities that make up the cultural and commercial heart of the country. Pre-Soviet heritage is better preserved here than in other areas and the concentration of ethnic Kazakhs is highest in this region.

A couple of hours after leaving Aral we could see the first signs of increased prosperity – herds of sheep and cows grazing and some land cultivated for agriculture.

The main city in this area is Almaty, which was the capital of Kazakhstan until 1998, when the northern city of Astana replaced it. However, Almaty is still the country’s economic centre.

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.

A group of camels at sunset on the SteppeAral 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.