The only information that we had read about Kazakhstan, prior to entering Kazakhstan, was largely negative. We'd focused our attentions on travel blogs from those who have driven through the country and there was a consistant theme. Its incredibly expensive, corruption is rife and the roads are a nightmare. As you can therefore imagine, we were somewhat nervous about the 30 days we had printed on our visa.

After two weeks in Kazakhstan, I feel compelled to write about how far from the truth this has been (except for the prices - it is expensive. And the roads are pretty bad. And we did just have to bribe the traffic police...more on this in a moment).

The first challenge we expected was the border. It took us about four hours to get through which compared to the nightmare stories of other travellers sleeping at the border, this seemed reasonable. It would have been much quicker if we couold speak good Russian as the majority of the time was spent trying to explain what paperwork we needed, as understandably they don't get too many Australian cars through this part of the world. We left the border feeling positive, and with an invite to dinner at the house of one of the customs guards, and set off on our 350km drive to Almaty.

Along the way we were expecting regular run-ins with the police, notorious for setting up check points at each town entrance and handing out fines willy nilly. 350Km later we were in Almaty, no fines to speak of.

The next day was visa registration. By all accounts this should have been a nightmare – fill in the form in Russian, wait for hours, bribe the officer. Imagine our suprise when we walked straight up to the counter, no waiting, and the chap quickly stamped our cards with no form and no fee!

All of these small events have lead me to believe that Kazakhstan has changed significantly from the old blogs that we have read. Our key sources of information were from 2007/2008 and Kazakhstan, at least around Almaty, has developed a huge amount since then. The people are incredibly friendly, helpful, patient and fun loving and Almaty is an awesome city. With breathtaking mountains rising to 4000m 15km from the city centre and several huge lakes within 100km it really is an adventure sports playground.

Click here to see some of our photos: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.198672480206064.49915.113975598675753

Now, contrary to what I have just said, we did just have a run-in with the police today. We got a bit lost driving in Almaty and made a left turn without noticing the no entry sign above our heads. The tram driving directly towards us should have been warning enough but we didn't execute the U-turn manouvre quick enough and the police were on us. After handing over my drivers license and Registration document, the copper had a laugh and a joke with us about our names, where we were from and referres to me as David Beckham. He then takes me for a walk to show me the no entry sign before heading off to smoke a cigarette with a few mates. Five minutes later he returns and escorts me to a police car, giving my documents over to his colleague and asking me to get into the car. It quickly becomes clear to the chap already in the car that I don't understand his Russian explanation of what I have done wrong and so he calls a woman on his mobile, I think his wife, to translate. She explains to me that I have broken the law, that I went the wrong way down a one way street, and that I need to pay a fine of 22,000 tenge*. “What!” I exclaim, “22,000 tenge!” It must have been clear to the copper on my left how upset I was as he was now staring at me with a fairly intense frown. In response to my complaints, the lady gets angry and makes it clear that if I do not pay the fine, I will not get my documents back. I pass the phone back to copper and resign myself to paying the big fine, equivalent to two days travelling for Pen & I. He stares at me, shrugs, and waits for me to pay. So I start pulling money out my pocket and counting out the 22,000. At this point he becomes noticeably agitated and gets me to lower my hands as a couple walk past the car. He raises a book on the dash board and ushers me to slide the money under it. Now obvious to me that this fine is not so 'official' I start to negotiate. I again ask how much I need to pay and complain at the high price. I through in a number of 'pahzhalst's' (please) for good measure. Eventually he asks me “how much?”, at which point I write on his notepad my counter offer of 10,000 tenge. He rattles a few more sentences off in Russian before agreeing to the new price, starts laughing and pats me on the shoulder! I slide the 10,000 note under his book, shake hands and then we drive off as quickly as possible, whilst obeying all traffic rules, before they change their mind!


* 22,000 tenge is roughly $150.