Kazakhstan really gave us a warm welcoming, in every meaning of this word. We heard a lot of stories about corrupt Kazakh border officials, who take your car apart or make you spend a night on a border unless you pay them and were really hoping it was just stories, like the ones we heard about Russian police. We also decided to go for a smaller border crossing, as we expected things to go quicker there. And they did! None of our border crossing was as quick and relaxed as this one. The officials were smiling and joking and didn't give the inside of our car more than one glance. Both on Russian and Kazakh side. And they also (like so many before) found the idea of driving such a long way just for fun a total craziness, which made them laugh even more. We were ready to go in no time, our moods better than ever.
The day was sunny and nice as we were leaving our last camping spot in Russia and I still had the words of Sergiej, the truck driver in my head. He promised me I will unpack my light clothes and even my bikini in Kazakhstan and I was really hoping for him to be right. And he was! By the time we got to the border I already had to change, as it got too warm for my jeans. And when the formalities were over we decided to hit the first lake we can find on a map. We didn't care about exchanging money or shopping, we just wanted to get to the water and enjoy the weather. And we did enjoyed it! The sun was shining, the view was amazing, the water crystal clear and the beach nice and sandy. And I did unpack my bikini and stayed in it for the whole day. We actually enjoyed it so much we spent whole 2 days there until it was time to finally go to a big city and register our visas.
After all the Mongolian cities Ust-Kamenogorsk made quite a nice impression. The shops were well stocked and the restaurants really good, so that we were happy to be in the city again. Registration formalities were also pretty painless, but we had to spend at least one night in a hotel to have an address under which we could be registered. So we stayed and enjoyed the hot water, shopping, eating out and all the other advantages of being in a town. And we met some extremely nice people again. We wanted to look for some spare parts, as few small things were causing us trouble ever since we left Mongolia. Like our hatch door, which was closing on it's own, making it unable for us to leave our bedroom window open. We not only found a shop with the right parts, but we actually got them for free, as a gift with the best wishes for our further journey.
We didn't really know what to expect of Kazakhstan before we came here. I have to admit the reports from other travelers were not really positive. They basically advised us to drive through the whole country as fast as we can, spend a day or two in Almaty, go to see the famous canyon and then leave and never come back. Details differed from story to story, but nearly everyone was sure about one thing: the country is boring. Dead boring. Nothing to see, no nice camping spots, the same view from your car window for hours. We we were planning to change our route a bit, so that we could really be out of Kazakhstan in no time if necessary. But we started to doubt those stories already on the first day. We had a lake with mountains in the background, nice clean water, enough wood to make fire the whole evening and a sandy beach all to ourselves. We were far from giving up on Kazakhstan!
Since Sergiej the truck driver proved to be a reliable source of information we decided to take his advice and check out the lakes east from Ust-Kamenogorsk. The roads in this part of the country turned up to be quite good (especially after driving in Mongolia for a month), so we wanted to give it a try. Our way to the lake was already splendid but it was nothing compared to what we found when we got there. I don't think I could ever get bored with that. Beautiful lake, splendid mountains, nice beaches, hundreds of wild birds and hardly anyone around. It was perfect! We spent a few days driving around Lake Zaysan, changing between perfect locations and enjoying every moment of the ride. We spent some lovely days reading, swimming, lying in a hammock, watching sunrises and sunsets, as well as the starry sky, which is nearly as pretty as the one in Mongolia. We loved it! Back there we already knew, there is no way we're going through Kazakhstan without stopping, we were going to take our time, enjoying every lake on our way to Almaty. And a few rivers too! Sweet or salty, big or small, they were all amazing, each having different views and surprises to offer. And camping when the days are sunny and evenings cold enough to make a big fire is simply the greatest thing!
Sasykkol Lake is the one that will definitely stay in our memory for a long time. We were already traveling in this region for a third day and wanted to take a last swim before we hit the road again. We found a path that looked as if it was leading to water and slowly followed it in the direction of the lake. Unfortunately what looked like a solid ground turned out to be a total swamp and our car got stuck before we could even notice what was happening. Gerrit wanted to pull us out, but we soon noticed that it was hopeless. Trying to come anywhere near our car would get his car stuck too, which was not exactly our goal. There was no other option then the good old digging. Fortunately getting stuck and helping others get out of their troubles in Mongolia gave us some good training and taught us some nice tricks, so we knew what was to be done. But we also knew it would take us ages, as we had quite some distance to bridge before getting on ground that could be described as safe to drive on. It took us eight hours! Eight hours of digging, lifting the car, putting some wood and sand ladders underneath it, moving it a few meters and starting all over again. Eight hours in burning sun, with a wind that was constantly blowing tons of sand in our faces. Funny thing was the day before we were actually complaining we're not moving enough recently... Well, we got what we asked for. But in the end hard work payed off and we got Karossi out of trouble and were finally back on the road to Almaty.