I left China. I’m walking to exit of the first encountered village. Kazakstan feels a bit like home. Falling apart houses, dirt road, fields and trees, it’s so similar. I feel great. I’m looking forward to practise Russian. I do not wait long. Within 5 minutes I catch a ride. My broken Russian works miracles. A local guy treats me with cookies and fresh cow milk, while taking me to Zharkent, a town 20 km away. We shake hands and exchange greetings.
I’m sparking enthusiasm. I smile to local taxi drivers waving at me and start to walk. It’s over 300 km to Almaty, I have my sign in hand. Several cars are passing by. I catch eyes of a driver laughing at me. I grin back and wave my hand. The car stops 20 metres further, they are waiting for me. A couple of Russian guys just finished work, they are about to drive to Almaty. It hasn’t been yet 3 minutes since I said bye to a Kazakh driver.
We first drive to their place in Zharkent. They change clothes and… a tire! I haven’t notice it was flat. I swear, the whole thing took them less then 5 minutes, they were crazy fast! We pick up another friend of theirs and four of us depart to Almaty. The road is flat. A horizon of scrub and snowy mountains in the background, beautiful. We drive through these plains 120 km/h in a falling apart KIA.
Once in Almaty I change money and find a cheap hostel. I’m out of China… I have access to social media and YouTube again. Sweet!
Next morning I’m having breakfast with a bunch of girls I met in my hostel. The food is amazing, it’s the first time, I try the horse meat officially.
Back in 2017, during my hitchhiking trip from Iran to Poland, I met Ben. Together we crossed the border between Iran and Armenia. Ben is on his pilgrimage to India. He started to walk back in Czech Republic, now he is resting and working in Almaty. It is nice to catch up and share some travel stories. I hope to see him again in India.
I’m having a lazy day. Once outside, I visit a local market. I haggle and buy a couple of t-shirts. I sit in the park, work on my blog and visit local cinema. Unfortunately all movies have Russian dubbing. It’s still too early for me, I need to improve my vocabulary.
A cable car to Koktobe Hill costs me 1000 tenge (1 dollar~350 tenge) one way. The view is pretty sweet. Mountains covered by snow, green valleys and city below.
Transit visa to Russia
Russian embassy in Almaty is open Tuesdays and Fridays. I decided to apply for transit visa, which would allow me to stay in Russia only few days. Only certain countries can apply for tourist visa. I had this option and decided not to. Several reasons, time and money are the major ones. The price and availability of visa depends on passport. Express transit visa costed me 70 dollars, I applied on Tuesday and supposed to receive my passport back on Friday. Regular transit visa would cost me 35 dollars, but I would need to wait a week. I required several documents.
1) Train/flight tickets through Russia. I used state website https://pass.rzd.ru/main-pass/public/en to book tickets online. I purchased tickets from Astana in Kazakhstan to Helsinki in Finland. The total time of train journey with a change in Moscow is 4 days. This is how many days the visa would cover.
2) Travel insurance with a minimum 30000 euro medical cost cover. I used Polish company Tu Europa. I received confirmation and document immediately after I purchase it online. Something was missing. I sent email to company explaining I need adjustment. I received second document, which confirmed visa covers Russia. The amount, the insurance covered, was also converted from zloty to euro.
3) Visa application completed online and printed. It requires info about insurance and exact date and length of transit through Russia.
4) 2 passport pictures
5) Passport valid for another 3 months and Kazakh immigration card.
A que on front of embassy. I’m a bit late and worried. After 45 min wait, I enter the building. I try not to show how excited and worried I am. The man behind a counter checks and accepts my documents. I pay for visa and leave the embassy with smile on my face.
I feel great. There is nothing keeping me in the city at the moment. I have a couple of days. I get out of Almaty. I find a wild campsite, close to a trail, I want to hike the next day. There is a stream with a clear water nearby. I’m surrounded by mountains and forrest. Alone. Sweet.
I wake up and wash myself in a stream. No breakfast today, I decide to fast and drink plenty of water. I leave my tent and start to hike. My target is Mt Kumbel. The trail is not an easy one, it’s quite steep. It takes me a couple of hours to reach the plateau above. Finally, I leave forest and see beautiful area around me with snowy peaks in the background.
I’m out of water. I can’t access the waterfall nearby like I planned. The water must be coming from somewhere though. I continue into the valley towards the source of the waterfall and Mt Kumbel. I encounter a stream. I drink lots of water and refill my bottle. Fasting while hiking wasn’t a good idea. I’m low on energy. It shows when I continue. This part is very steep. Next 2 hours I struggle. It’s hot, I stop a lot to rest, I’m very careful with water. I double check my bag for food and find chewing gum. I use it to distract my hunger and thirst. It works. I play some music and find extra energy to reach the top.
The weather changes constantly. There are dark clouds on the horizon. While descending, I meet a group of three tourists. I’m happy to have a short break and exchange travel stories. Unfortunately clouds and air pollution do not help pictures.
I meet more people on the way down. I’m descending quickly, but observe the ground carefully. One wrong step and I will tumble hundred metres down. I refill my bottle again and speed up. I’m feeling a lot better and I’m buzzing with energy.
I made it back to my tent just in time. It’s raining. I start looking for a last minute couchsurfing host. I found one! We exchange contact numbers. I explain to him my situation. I need to pack my tent and catch a ride back to city. Something is wrong, my host sounds unhappy. He is a new cs user with no reference, he didn’t expect hitchhiker. I’m not worried, I pack my tent and go to main road. I receive a message from my host. He broke his leg, a falling tree branch. I think he lies, but do not fuss. I thank him, wish him a quick recovery and offer my help.
30 minutes later I receive a message from Nina. She is living in a very comfortable apartment close to the city centre. I relax and plan my trip through Kazakhstan and Russia. I also contact my friend in Astana, it will be nice to catch up. Hot shower!
Friday morning I collect my passport with a new shiny visa. I have several days to travel through country before I cross border with Russia close to Oral.
My last day in Almaty, I decide to join a couchsurfing event. During bar hopping, I meet a very likable bunch of nutcases, a majority of them is local. We drink, dance, play table football and share experience.
Tip 2GIS application
2GIS app is offline directory with the city map navigator and public transport routes. It includes major cities in Kazakhstan, Russia and other countries of ex USSR. Extremely handy.
I catch a local bus to outskirts of city. I have no sign with me. In Kazakhstan it’s common to stop private car and pay for a ride, many people travel this way every day. I decide to thumb my way forward.
I catch several small rides and end up at petrol station, 100 km away from Almaty. A truck stops and the driver waves at me. Aniyar offers to take me remaining 1100 km North to Astana.
We stop by lake, pass through plains of scrub and rain. We enjoy the rainbow on horison and meals in local service stations. Aniyar treats me with shish kebab when we stop for lunch lunch and fish in the evening.
There is something wrong with the truck. The starter is not working and we ask another vehicle for help. I enjoy the sunset while boys work on the truck. We continue to drive only to realise there is a distinct smell coming into cabin, something is burning. The starter needs to be removed completely. It’s already dark. We enjoy beer with some occasional friends. I spend the night in the truck on the upper bed.
In the morning friendly Kirgis driver helps Aniyar. The repair takes few hours. They start the engine with the help of second car. The engine is working the entire day.
While driving we see a random guy on horizon. He is horse riding through plains. One day it will be me. First I need to learn how to ride a horse though and save some money. Mongolia supposed to be great.
We are close to Astana when Aniyar asks me to change some money for him. 5 minutes later we are stopped by police. A small bribe speeds up the process. I learn, it’s a standard in Kazakhstan. We stop few km later, an accident. A man fall asleep behind a wheel. Locals use my phone to call his relatives. He is clearly in a state of shock.
Merei is half asleep when I arrive to her flat at 2 am. We catch up in the morning. She is busy with work, but recommends me places to see. Merei’s flat is located a walking distance to city centre. I start my excursion by walking across the bridge into colourful park. It’s family orientated area with many attractions for the little ones.
Astana is like an empty postcard. Pretty on the outside, it’s purpose is to advertise country. Architecture of the city is incredible. Many beautiful building, some of them designed to be part of a greater complex.
I have a look into massive tent shaped shopping centre with theme rides and aqua park for kids. I walk though centre with multiple squares populated by fountains, monuments, art pieces and flowers to end up on front of presidential palace. I meet Merei. We share a meal in Turkish restaurant and enjoy an evening walk.
Sending post cards to my friends is a challenge. I spend a couple of hours looking for a place where I can buy stamps. Once I succeed, I visit Kazakh National Museum. The entry ticket is only two dollars. I quite enjoy Kazakhski Spirit exhibition. Numerous colourful paintings present Kazakh and their epic journey through history and legends. Silhouettes are very dynamic, it’s something I like quite a lot.
Finally I can watch Antman and Wasp without Russian dubbing! There is a single cinema in Astana that shows one movie with subtitles. I like super hero movies a lot and Merei is happy to join me. The movie is good and we are having a blast.
Astana, Kostanay, Aktobe, Ural… I have 4 days to complete close to 2000 km route and reach border with Russia. Early morning, I take bus to outskirts of Astana. It’s a hot day and I’m waiting long time. It takes 3 rides and 4 hours to complete 80 km. Disaster. I’m bored and decide to walk. I play a variety of scenarios in my head. The worst possible outcome. I have enough time to arrive to Kostanay on time and I cross border there. It means extra 1000 km in Russia with my 4 day transit visa. A very risky game.
A half an hour later I shake hands with Renat. He likes fast cars and enjoys adrenaline quite a bit. Within 5 hours we made over 600 km to Kostanay, his hometown. Renat invites me to dinner. His wife prepared some tasty homemade food. My belly is full and there is a smile on my face. Renat offers me a lift to the exit of city and I gladly accept. It saves me a lot of time. During the ride he highlights local interest points like the biggest supermarket, church and more. It’s interesting to see his point of view and places that affect his life on a daily basis.
It’s getting late when I’m picked up by 3 guys happy to help me. We share beer, stories and laughs, while driving South to their village. They take a break to chat with a mechanic. I make friends with a bunch of his kids. I draw them a map and explain where I’m from. We depart soon after with kids shouting and waving goodbye.
I’m camping next to the petrol station. There are several trucks parked nearby. Wild dogs are nowhere to be seen. The noise of starting engines wakes me up. It takes me over an hour to find a truck going to Denisovka 70 km away. I buy myself some buns and yoghurt for breakfast. There is no town or village for the next 400 km. The traffic is sparse. I start to walk, looking for a good place to stop cars. I notice trucks pulling over and a lonely bar few hundred metres away from the town border.
My broken Russian helps me again. Not many people speak English in Kazakhstan. Gokhan and Atilla are Turkish drivers on the way home. Both trucks are going to Aktobe. They finish their breakfast and offer me seat in Gokhan’s truck. We spend hours driving by plains and fields close to the border. My phone stopped receiving Kazakh signal and connected to Russian network. There is no visible fence or guards, random trucks use dirt roads to go into Russia. I don’t understand how it works. Myself I need to travel West as close to Ukraine as possible.
My signal is back and I can connect to internet. I receive great news. My laptop, I sent from Australia 2 months earlier, was delivered to my sister in Poland. Sweet!
Gokhan and Atilla stop at service station close to Aktobe. I use this opportunity to take pictures of area around and look for a driver going further to Oral. I find one. He is about to depart. A quick farewell with boys and I continue further. I travel all day and spend the night middle of nowhere with Uzbek truck driver. I wake up middle of night and watch the sky. A single plane flying above. The sky is clear and full of stars. There are so many of them! The nearest town must be 100 km away. My driver planned to take a quick nap and continue. No chance. I enjoy the colourful sunrise and take pics of cemetery nearby. You kind find lots of graves a great distance from villages and towns. Quite often it’s the only construction you see, while driving through many kilometres of plains.
Early afternoon I arrive to Oral. Almost 2000 km in slightly over 48 hours. Well done myself! I also found last minute couchsurfing host. I’m welcomed by Nauan and his mom Sonia. Once I have shower, they invite me to join them in the kitchen. It looks like the table is close to falling apart under the weight of food on top. They insist I try everything and I’m not holding back. It’s all delicious. A selection of meat, a soup, dumplings and snacks. It’s the first time I try kumis. This alcohol drink is made from horse milk.
Nauan shows me around the city. We go shopping and visit a barber. Nauan ask me to join him during a photo session, he arranged for the evening. We drive to a nearby chalk extraction site. White canyon is partially depleted, it’s a unique place. I’m having fun exploring the area and helping with pictures. I act like movie director, while improvising romantic scenes with a couple of Nauan’s clients. We get along, we joke and laugh, the atmosphere is great.
My last night in Kazakhstan, I spend sleeping on construction camp. It’s raining a lot and I don’t fancy camping. I don’t set up a tent, it’s a hot night, I just get comfortable with my yoga mat and sleeping bag. At 4 am I suddenly wake up and jump out of my comfort. A dog running from rain stepped on me while entering the building. My shout of surprise scares out the animal.
There are 2 border passages close to Oral, West and North. I see many cars heading North into central Russia, while waiting for car going West. Today is the day my transit visa is valid. Will they let me in? I consider alternatives.
A car stops. There are already 4 men inside. The driver speaks Russian. He asks me for money. I explain I’m hitchhiking and end with a local joke `капуста пуста!`. It made him laugh. Zafar let me join them. They are working in Russia. The road is under construction, but finally we arrive to the border.
There are 2 lines of cars entering Kazakh checkpoint. If you can afford to pay 10 dollars per person, you wait short time in left que. We stop in the right que, there are only 4 cars in front of us. After 3 hours of wait we proceed through checkpoint. With no problem we continue to the Russian site.
A soldier checks our passports and provide immigration cards for us to fill in. I look at my companions final destination and also write it down. My transit visa specifies my destination is Helsinki. My companions are travelling to Voronezh. The city is located many hundreds of km away from the border and could be used as stop on the way to both, Ukraine and Finland. Perfect! Once cards are filled in, a soldier briefly checks them. He studies mine carefully.
– This one is interesting
I freeze. I’m the only guy with Polish passport. You can’t officially hitchhike through border on a transit visa. Immigration cards confirm we travel together. It makes sense for me to stop in Voronezh tonight in case I travel to Finland. After few seconds we are permitted to continue. I’m still worried. It wasn’t actual border check. This guy was only checking that immigration cards are filled in correctly. The real thing is still waiting for me.
It’s our turn. We stop the car and I get out. We present our documents individually. I want to be the last one in a short que. This way a soldier can’t ask my companions about. I can easily lie about going to Finland if necessary. Just in case, I have reservation for train from Moscow to Helsinki with me. It’s already cancelled, but it would require a further check to establish the truth. I see soldier’s body language, he is suspicious. I bet it’s extremely rare or happens first time an individual with transit visa is travelling with foreigners using working visa. He is checking my visa and immigration card very carefully. He uses ultraviolet and tools to verify my visa is legit. Outside I’m steady, inside the level of adrenaline is high. I’m expecting question, but I don’t get one. I get stamp!
This border is different from Kazakh check. Single que, no bribe, no messing around. Once in que the car is checked by dogs and sappers. Once I’m done, everyone is already back in the car. With a huge smile on my face, I sit inside and continue to hitchhike into Russia.