Lying on my back in a comfortable chair I look  at the dimmed light above me. Open-mouthed. In the background I hear Candy Dulfer’s famous song “Lily was here” . I see the head of a lady with a mouthcap showing me a sterile packaged needle. “Anesthetic?”, she asks. Oh dear, it’s not that bad, is it? Candy makes me quite relaxed and so I answer that an anesthetic is not necessary.

This is already the third time that I find myself in this situation. The first time was in Georgia, the second in Armenia and now the third time here in Astana, the ultra-modern capital of Kazakhstan. In Georgia part of a filling broke off, in Armenia a piece of enamel of an incisor and now another incisor seems to crumble away. Once again, my teeth need a bit of restoration. All people here are professionals. They have good equipment, are careful about hygiene and do not give one the feeling that they have only 15 minutes until it is the next patient’s turn.

Here in Astana everything is impressive. I am in a modern dental clinic, where everything is state of the art according to western standards. Unfortunately, the dentists do not speak English so communication is in sign language, but up to now this has not caused any problems. After an hour of manual labor and an attractive bill, I return quite satisfied to the camper, that I have been able to park in the grounds of “Hostel Nomad 4×4”. I will stay here for another 3 days waiting for my visa for Mongolia. That way, I will not have to bother about that in Russia. Astana appears to have a smooth handling of the visa application.

But this is just a sample of today’s events. Let me go back to the events after the last blog:

The visa for Russia is valid for a double entry for 3 months from May 15. I have a business visa, for that is the only kind that permits double entry. In the Netherlands I have arranged this through a visa-service business. Ostensibly I now am the manager of a company that will have a meeting in Moscow and I need an invitation of this company (Letter of Invitation)to obtain this kind of visa.

I am already prepared for the difficult border crossing into Russia. At first everything goes smoothly. After a short inspection of the camper follows the paperwork. I am even helped filling in the car registration. A friendly official, dressed as an officer with a Frisbee cap on his head, even speaking a little bit of English, explains a couple of things to me. I have to drive to a shed where I have to step down from the camper, which is then completely scanned. In the meantime I have already received a stamp in my passport, but just when I think everything has been taken care of, I am led to a tiny sweaty room where a man behind a computer starts to interrogate me. He speaks a little English: what is my destination, do I have friends here etc. Especially my business visa seems to interest him. What kind of company is it, what is my profession, what am I going to do in Moscow, which places am I going to visit, etc. etc. After 2 hours of this he seems a bit lost. We are joined by a colleague who speaks good German and who starts to dig even deeper: why don’t you first go to Moscow and how much money do you have in your bank account, because with such a camper you must have a lot of money, and where did you get this money. When I in my turn ask him how much money he has in his account, he replies that that is private. Thereafter, the questioning ends fairly quickly. Initially he threatens to stop me from entering Russia, but in the end the conversation stops and he walks with me to the camper. On seeing Piggy, his jaw drops. Super, he says in German, shakes my hand and wishes me a good trip.

After 5 hours of this, I am relieved to finally enter North Ossetia. On the north side of the Caucasus Mountains I descend to the city of Vladikavkaz, where I find a motel to spend the night. A beautiful view of the snowy peaks of the mountains is a nice gift after this enervating day.

The first days in Russia will take me through the unstable regions of North Ossetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. I don’t dare to camp in the wild here or to visit cities, although later I hear from travelers that it is possible to look around in these regions, including Grozny. Everyone I meet is excited about the beauty of the landscape and the hospitality of the population.On the way it is clear that the route goes through unstable regions. Army barracks, checkpoints and military convoys are everywhere. In total I am stopped 5 times. Papers are checked, sometimes followed by a short inspection of the camper. The Russian police is known for its corruption. They try to catch you in all kinds of ways in the hope to make a good thing out of it. At one time I am directed to the side of the road. First the usual questions and checking of papers, but then I have to get down. Again I am led to a sweaty room where a grumpy, unkempt man shows me some photographs to prove that I have crossed an uninterrupted central dividing line in the road. A good reason for a nice tip for these policemen. There is even a picture of the car that I have allegedly overtaken thus crossing the line. The proof is there, so that will cost me money. Through Google translate they show me a number of threats with tendencies such as “prosecuted, fined, violation of the law, passport not back”. They keep my documents (I always hand out copies, never the originals) and invite me to tell them how much I am willing to pay to get them back. After some hesitation I say that I do not want to pay more than one Euro. Maybe that will buy them an ice-cream. I take a good look at the film again and conclude that everything has been carefully orchestrated. The car that I supposedly overtook deliberately braked so that I had no option but to swerve and cross the line. The private car behind me (not a police car!) could thus photograph my “offense”.

After my cheeky 1 Euro bid, the unkempt man throws his pen down, hands me my passport back and gestures that I can leave. Later on, I will experience these unexpected and sudden twists more often… They start with a spot of intimidation, but when that does not work and one refuses to pay, they let you continue on your journey.

In Dagestan, driving to the north, the area changes rather quickly in a steppe with dry yellow grass. This continues into the Republic of Kalmykia. A rather special little state, where one is confronted with images of the Dalai Lama and pagoda-style structures. In the 17th century the inhabitants moved here from Mongolia and thus also brought Buddhism with them. The capital Elista is unfortunately not on my route to Mongolia. In order to get there, I have a couple of thousand kilometers to cover and since I want to visit the national festival of Naadam between 11 and 15 July I am more or less in a bit of a hurry.

The city of Astrakhan is a revelation to me. It is a modern city with a pleasant boulevard along the Volga, which is visited by hundreds of people in the late afternoon when it gets cooler. There is even Salsa-dancing in the street to the sound of passionate Cuban music. A wonderful atmosphere.Yes, Russia is a country of many surprises

I treat myself to a nice hotel, good food and a good internet connection in the hotelroom to work on my long overdue administration. Editing the photos for Fotostock Bureau “Alamy” (Stock photography by Bert de Ruiter at Alamy ) takes quite a lot of time.

Astrakhan is located in the Volga delta that flows into the Caspian sea, a beautiful nature reserve, known for its many migratory birds. Because of all the water the environment is lovely and green, but also the home of many irritating mosquitoes.

The last kilometers before the border with Kazakhstan the quality of the road drastically decreases. The huge holes in the asphalt remind me of Ukraine and Moldova. The border formalities with Kazakhstan go unexpectedly smoothly. From now on I can no longer count on good roads. Often it is impossible to drive faster than 35 km per hour. Piggy has to work hard again, but keeps putting up a brave fight.

The days are long, strenuous, hot and boring. The road goes straight as an arrow through the dry steppe. No mountains or hills to see. One night, the first camels show up. From my balcony at the back of Piggy I can watch them passing by. They look a bit motley. It is the time of the year that their thick winter coat is exchanged for a lighter summer outfit.

The Aral Sea has largely disappeared due to water mismanagement in Soviet times. Searching for the famous shipwrecks in the steppe, I  I am greatly disappointed. A few children from a former fishing village supposedly in the vicinity of the wrecks show me a track in the sand. However, after an hour’s drive along the sandy path, I realize that by now I have gone too far. It is already late and I have to find a camping spot. I drive to the present-day coast of the Aral Sea. The waves have white caps for the wind has turned into a storm. I have to brace myself to keep the door of the cabin from being torn from my hands and damage the hinges when I try to get out. Not a night to sleep in the roof-tent! That could be a second parasailing experience.

The next day the wind is even fiercer. The white dust from what used to be the bottom of the Aral Sea creeps through all the cracks of truck and man. The sandstorm provides a very limited view of the route back to the civilized world. In the lowest gear, Piggy pulls through the accumulated sand. Eventually I get stuck. The wheels slowly dig deeper into the sand, but I have learned not to continue to accelerate and after ten minutes of waiting, the holes in front of and behind the wheels have been filled with sand. By alternatively driving forward and reversing I manage to get myself out of my nasty position.Another one of those euphoric “Yesssss” moments.

By chance, I now find the location of the shipwrecks, but there is no wreck to be seen, only a big black spot and some small pieces of scrap. The shipwrecks have fallen victim to scrap dealers. What a pity!!!

The route further south has few highlights, except for the city of Turkistan, which houses a very important pilgrimage site: the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, built after Timoer Lenk defeated the Golden Horde in many bloody battles. A gigantic structure,  richly decorated with mosaic work on the outside.

Before I arrive in Astana, almost 2000 km have to be traveled, and that does not go quickly on these roads. About 150 km before I get there, it is clear that Astana is not far away any more. The super modern city hosted the Expo 2017 and partly because of this, the potholed road has been transformed into a modern highway including well laid out junctions and viaducts. Great driving!

Along the way I visit several places that recall the horrors of the Stalinregime, such as the Spassk massgrave near Karaganda and the administrative center and penal camp of the Kar-Lag, the Kazakh part of the Gulag in Dolinka.

I am currently staying in Astana for a few days, a place where one can find exuberant architecture, good restaurants and … good dentists.

 

My plans for the coming weeks:

The main plan is to attend the Naadam festival in Mongolia from 11 to 15 July. I probably will enter the western part of Mongolia from Russia because that is a shorter and therefore less hurried route than the one via Irkutsk to the north of Mongolia. After a tour of Mongolia I will return to Kazakhstan to go to Kyrgyzstan via Almaty and surroundings.

TAKE  LOOK AT THE IMAGERY AND FOOTAGE OF RUSSIA AND KAZAKHSTAN