Written by Charlie
The day before we crossed into Kazakhstan remains a blur in my memory. We had decided on a rest day, camped under some riverside trees, before beginning a rush to paddle across Kazakhstan’s vastness in the 30-day period allowed.
After a late breakfast, I wandered over to a couple of men setting up a table and fire nearby. In my halting, childish Russian, I asked if they could order a taxi for us the following day as we would need to cross the border by road. The walk would be punishing with a 30kg kayak among our kit. The larger of the two men, Slava, sat me down and poured out two generous measures of homebrewed brandy. “Nasdroviya”, he chanted, raising his glass. We tipped the caustic hooch down our throats. Slava then said he would drive us to the border himself in the morning and refilled the glasses. I suddenly foresaw the rest of the day with more clarity than I can now remember it.
Slava turned out to be the boss of a small team of police personnel who were shortly coming to the river for an annual day off. The atmosphere was something akin to that of the British Christmas office party. Around lunchtime, seven more people arrived and started drinking in earnest. Every shot was accompanied by a toast, some of which were rambling and heartfelt, some of which (ours) were brief and in pidgin Russian. Huge hunks of delicious pork were roasted on a fire and little bowls of salad were largely ignored. The afternoon descended into circle dancing, slurred shouting, men dragging women into the river, Callie knowing her limits and declining drinks, Charlie not knowing his and vomiting (mostly) in the tent porch.
Slava drove his rammed and riotous jeep home around midnight but was back at 9am bearing cold beers to ease our hangovers. We loaded everything into the car and drove to the border via the police station to say farewell to our comrades from the party. They all looked decidedly more fresh than us. At immigration, an officer noticed that, due to a technicality of my visa, I’d been illegal in Russia for the previous two months. I played dumb and was eventually allowed to leave the country but told I’d need a new visa to re-enter.
Not wanting to risk yet another arrest, we took a taxi around the 40 miles of restricted river that formed the Russian-Kazakh border. Under a midday sky milky with humidity, we pumped up “Badge Fly” (our kayak) and launched in an area so densely swarming with mosquitoes that we were panicked and frantic for the time it took to shake the several hundred that had settled on us. A dip in the cool water soothed the itching bites.
The river was different in Kazakhstan. It looked similar but gone were the scores of stolid Russian men sat by motionless fishing rods. In their place was only the occasional weathered Kazakh fishing without a rod, casting by swinging the line above his head like a lasso. There were less little birds nesting in the muddy banks and more vast eagles and hawks circling overhead. Grey herons, startled by our approach, flapped lankily into the air and fled downriver.
We saw few people and several days later reached Uralsk where I would have to apply for a Russian transit visa. Visa difficulties are the least interesting and (all too often) most commonly featured topic in travel blogs so I will rush hastily past the five days we were stuck in Uralsk getting (and forging) documents and finally paddling on with the unnerving conclusion that my application would be referred to Moscow for approval. I wouldn’t know the outcome for two weeks.
We now had just over two weeks to reach the Caspian Sea, over 600 river miles away, ship the kayak home, buy bicycles, get back to Uralsk to collect my (hopefully) approved visa, and cycle 300km to the Russian border before our Kazakh visa expired and we incurred a prison sentence for overstaying. The race was on.
We began starting early and finishing late. The days grew hotter, nudging into the low 40s, and we swam every couple of hours to cool off. Lunch was often taken up to our chests in the water. Cows, horses and camels stood in the shallows, drinking and wallowing in the relative cool. Impressively aggressive horseflies attended them. Above the mud banks was a thin growth of trees and behind those was only the dry, desolate Kazakh steppe, stretching off far further than the eye could see. We spotted many snakes: vipers that can kill a human in the unlikely event that they manage to bite. Their fangs are placed awkwardly far back in their mouths.
With up to twelve hours paddling a day, our backs, necks and shoulders ached incessantly and, to our frustration, the river seemed to slow as it widened. Our diet became less exciting as the heat rose too much to carry fresh produce. We had no exact idea of how many river miles we were paddling each day, only how far we’d managed as the crow flies. With little time to spare, and few people around, our interactions with Kazakh people were sadly rare. There were few villages along the river and only one bridge during those two weeks. Occasional African-style car ferries puttered across the water belching black smoke.
We spent all our time confined to our little kayak with cramped legs and growing susceptibility to frayed tempers. However, patience won out in the end and we jubilantly pulled into Atyrau one hot afternoon. Only a day’s paddle from the Caspian, we landed at the dock of a group known as the River Rats who’d kindly allowed us to base ourselves there during our stay. Their neighbour, a quirky caviar dealer (read: sturgeon poacher), kindly welcomed us into his guestroom.
Tom, a Canadian expat, offered to pick us up from the Caspian and bring us back in his speed boat. In the morning we set off for the final 20 miles of the Ural. Illegal fishing nets cluttered the river and eventually the crumbling mud banks gave way to tall reed walls. The Caspian acts as an international border and at the border patrol point we were turned back. The police were friendly but said we couldn’t paddle the final mile to the open sea visible before us. However, we were informed that we were already a mile or two into the Caspian and the floating reed beds around us were technically sea.
Although a little unspectacular for the completion of a ten week, 1500-mile journey from source to sea, the beers we sipped at 45 knots in Tom’s boat tasted extra good.