We travelled the 300kms to Kokshetau on perhaps the best road in Central Asia: Three lanes wide, perfectly sealed and almost no one on it. The Head of Communications for UNICEF Kazakhstan also joined us, Sultan.
We arrived in the evening and went directly to a school to spread the balloon out in a large room to dry it. It was soaked after the attempted inflation in Astana a couple of days before, so we left it there to air overnight then made our way to the hotel. Snow had been falling since we arrived.
We met the Director of the children’s convention and had dinner with her and a couple from a children’s agency in Germany.
The children’s convention was a five day event for children aged 6-18 from Kazakhstan and Russia. They met to do workshops, team building and to generally have fun.
After dinner, we were introduced to the children and they gave loud and energetic performances about where they came from and what they do at their respective schools. It rapped up at 11.30pm and was a very entertaining evening.
We went to the school the following morning to pick the balloon up. I tried to start the truck, but it didn’t start. It was -12deg and was obviously having trouble with the cold. I turned on the truck’s heating, (It has a separate diesel heating system) which also heats the engine, and left it to warm while we packed up the balloon. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the balloon had dried quite a bit, but the underneath was still wet. I was concerned that the balloon would become frozen to the ground seeing it was so cold. Once we packed it away, I went to try to start the truck again and after some coaxing, roared into life. It was a relief to start it.
Just as we were leaving the school grounds, the truck went into limp mode and was limited to 20km/h. I was so used to problems with the truck that I just went with it and assured myself it was nothing too serious. I was pretty sure it was something to do with a sensor being cold.
We arrived at the city’s square to inflate the balloon. The truck was left running so it would get warm. I isolated the battery so it would clear the truck’s computer, and then turned it back on again. The engine light turned off and the engine was back to normal: Another big relief. I couldn’t imagine breaking down in Kokshetau, far away from any computer diagnostics equipment.
We got the balloon out and were helped by a few guys from a children’s home. They were quite stand-offish at first, but once I started messing around with them, they opened up and were a great bunch of guys. They were in their early teens and you could see that they were on the edge of either going down a good path or taking the bad path in life. I was shocked to hear that 90% of children from orphanages/children’s homes are doomed to fail, turning to drugs, crime and prostitution. They are often abandoned by their parent’s when they are born and are sometimes found in rubbish bins or alleyways. They lack direction in life and that’s why so many of them fail.
I could see that the guys had so much potential. They completely changed when they were shown some guidance and attention when in a relaxed atmosphere.
We inflated the balloon just before the opening ceremony. The sun came out and the conditions were perfect, (albeit cold). There was lots of cheering from the kids when I put the hot air in when the balloon was being stood up. I kept the balloon up for around half an hour as people came to the ceremony.
We packed up the balloon quickly as we were invited to attend, and I was also scheduled to give a speech.
There was lots of singing and dancing performances. We were very impressed by their skill and confidence. I gave a speech after the Deputy Governor of the region. I spoke about what my project is about and how important it is for them to follow their dreams.
The ceremony went for around two hours. After, we were invited for an afternoon tea with the organisers and the education minister for the area. Lots of kids also wanted photos with me, which I happily posed for.
We left at around 3pm and arrived back into Astana at 7.30pm. We were stopped by the police at a checkpoint coming into the city. The policeman wanted me to go into the main building to ‘discuss’ the matter, but luckily we had Sultan from UNICEF with us to sort things out. After a harsh start, the policeman was quite reasonable at the end.
It had started snowing as we approached Astana, and the weather wasn’t great. Another staff member from UNICEF had offered her Mother’s apartment for the duration of our stay.
The generosity of people never ceases to amaze me. Before we went to Kokshetau, we stayed at an American ex-pat’s apartment. He was a friend of someone from UNICEF. He was very generous and welcoming. It seemed his house was open to anyone passing through. Nothing was too much trouble for him. He worked as an English teacher and also coached basketball and baseball teams.
The weather was perfect the following day and we decided we would inflate the balloon in Astana as it was the last day we had permission to do it. We sent out a quick message to a number of people to let them know it was going on. Sultan dropped us off at the UNICEF office, (where the truck was being kept). Again it was very difficult to start as it had been around -10deg. We got the heater going and after 45mins it still couldn’t be started. We decided to call off the inflation. We didn’t give up trying to start it though and just 10mins later I managed to start it by rolling it down a very small rise the truck was parked on. Luckily I had had lots of experience with roll starts in China and Mongolia.
We decided to still do the inflation as it wasn’t long after we had called it off. We arrived at the park next to Khan Shatyr shopping centre, (a very impressive building) and started to get ready to inflate. Just as we were starting, a Russian guy came up to me and was interested to know what we were up to. He wanted to show me a trick, (which I was a bit sceptical about). He pulled out two big nails and asked me to bend them. There was no way I could. He then proceeded to put on his gloves and bent and twisted the nails around each other. I was very impressed. It turned out he was a strongman and held a few Guinness world records. Amazing the people you can meet when out and about.
The weather was perfect and we inflated the balloon. Quite a number of people came and went when the balloon was up. A lot of people were taking photos from their cars as it was a busy street. It was a shame it couldn’t be free-flown. Sultan had tried so hard the week before. He had all the signatures, from the KGB, Presidential Guard, Municipality, etc. The only one that didn’t sign was the Civil Aviation Authority. They said we could do it, but only outside of Astana. There was a specific rule that states no balloons can be flown over Astana, though they mentioned this at the last minute and after they had been approached many times about it. It was too late to make other arrangements about flying it outside of Astana.
It was great that we could still put it up in Astana, especially as the weather was so bad for the first attempt a few days before.
We said our goodbye’s to the friendly team at UNICEF Kazakhstan the following morning and headed south towards Kyrgyzstan.
Astana was an interesting city to visit. The Kazakhstan Capital shifted from Almaty to Astana in 1997 and the government have have spent billions on making a new city, largely thanks to oil money. The thing that is most striking is the architecture; there are many beautifully engineered buildings. Astana is a harsh place to live and is the second coldest capital city in the world, (after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia). We left just in time as over the next few weeks the daily minimum will be at least -20deg and will stay that way for a few months. It can be -40deg in the Winter and 40 deg in the Summer.
They are still constructing the road to Karagandy, so some of the road is offroad and very rough, (corrugated and very bumpy dirt road). After Karagandy, the road was a standard one lane each way, and generally good. The wide open plains became small rolling hills. We made it to Balqash that night and parked over the road from a petrol station. Lake Balqash is one of the largest lakes in Asia and is at risk of overuse. Hopefully it won’t go the same way as the Aral Sea in the west of Kazakhstan, which almost disappeared thanks to a massive irrigation scheme during the soviet time which diverted a huge amount of water for farm irrigation. There are also big pollution problems with Lake Balqash due to mining.
It was cold the next morning, but not as cold as it had been further north. We followed the edge of the lake for quite a way, and then branched off the main Almaty road to go towards Bishkek. I was stopped by the police for speeding just before the turn off. The policeman could speak English, (a first). Sometimes it is difficult to know what the speed limit is. I was caught doing 70km/h in a 50km/h zone. It was an instant $200 fine. I made a phone call to a friend in Astana. They explained what I was doing and the police officer kindly let me go with a warning.
The road progressively got worse and police became more frequent. They would be very crafty and hide at the bottom of steep hills with ridiculously low speed limit restrictions. Luckily other motorists flashed their lights to warn us.
We were shocked by the amount of rubbish, especially plastic bottles, on the sides of the road. Tyres would be burnt to keep long distance drivers warm overnight. They would also use the plastic bottles as fuel for the fire; not great for the environment.
The countryside was a mixture of plains and hills. Green grass also started to appear. I hadn’t seen green grass growing on the side of the road since China. We also found a pirate ship in the middle of nowhere. It was a hotel or restaurant, and a very strange sight. We stopped in the town of Shu to eat something. Des checked the truck just before we were to depart again. He found one of the bolts from the rear stabiliser had come off, (we had it re-welded in two places in Astana). The road had been very rough for the previous 100kms and had obviously taken its toll on it. There was a tyre repair shop across the road and I figured they would know where to get another bolt. The couple of guys there were a bit drunk and in my broken Russian, managed to ask one of them to show us where to find one. He jumped in the truck with us and we went into town to find one. We found one in the second shop we looked in. We dropped him off and we were on our way again.
The police stopped us again in the next town, but after another phone call to my ‘friend’, all was OK.
We were very happy to get to a perfectly smooth road about 50kms later. We were getting tired of horrible roads which may as well not have been sealed.
We arrived into the border town of Korday after dark to change money and I had to check e-mails. While we were parked up, a couple of guys came over and were interested in why we were there. They asked a few questions, (in Russian of course). Just before they left, they said they were detectives and showed their badges. You need to be careful sometimes!
We made our way to the border, but as it turned out, it was the wrong border crossing. We had to go another 18kms down the road to cross the border there. I assume that crossing was just for locals.
On arriving at the proper place, the most painful border crossing I’ve experienced so far began. I was sent around office after office getting a collection of stamps. The biggest problem was that Customs hadn’t registered me coming into Kazakhstan. Luckily a friendly English speaking border guard helped with that problem, but once he left, it became more difficult. The treated my truck like it was a goods truck, so I had to jump through many hoops and even get the truck X-rayed. I was asked for bribes four times. I see the other truck drivers were paying money, but I never did. I always asked “Why?” to the particular official, and they never answered.
During the process, I had to go back to the truck and wait to be let into the customs area. I made friends with the border guards and they offered me coffee in their very small booth. They also showed me their Kalashnakov’s and one of them even offered me to come back to his place the next day to eat shashlik and drink vodka with him and his friends. It was a funny thing to do at midnight.
The painful process was finally over after four hours. Some people had been great to deal with, and others horrible. I got to meet a lot of truck drivers who also helped me. If I didn’t speak at least a bit of Russian, I think I would’ve been very lost.
I drove through to the Kyrgyzstan side, where Des had been waiting for those four hours. He had to go through separately at the start. The guards on the Kyrgyzstan side had kindly offered him to stay in their office as it was very cold.
We were through the Kyrgyzstan side in 40mins and I was only asked once for a bribe. We finally parked up for the night at 1.30am.
We continued the short way to Bishkek the following morning and went straight to UN House, where the UNICEF office is. I met the team and we discussed the plan for the event in Kyrgyzstan. They also invited us for lunch with traditional Kyrgyzstan food.
We were invited to stay at the house of one of the UNICEF staff. We gratefully accepted and went there after lunch and had a quiet afternoon.
We went to the school the following morning to look at the place where the balloon was going to be flown from. It will be done as part of the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which will be held around the world on the 20th of November.
The school is run by a passionate and dedicated principal. She never married and treats the school like her own child. We met with her and a number of other staff to look over the grounds and discuss events. Some of the children were all ready busy sweeping and tidying the school for the event. We are expecting over 2000 people to attend with many children and government officials. Even the President of Kyrgyzstan was interested in attending, but was declined due to the logistics involved, (security, etc) in having him there.
Over the past few days we have been looking around Bishkek. The city has a population of one million and is full of trees, which is rare to see in capital cities. Their autumn colours look spectacular at this time of year. There are still many old soviet era apartment buildings and the modernisation of the city seems to have only started in recent times. I’m sure there will be many new developments in coming years. For now, it still has a lot of character, which I really like.
We fixed the rear stabiliser on the truck and made it much stronger. I have also had a fitting made so I can refuel the balloon. A number of meetings have been had, including one at the Civil Aviation Authority. They are very supportive of the balloon flight and said it is the first time a balloon will officially be allowed to fly in Kyrgyzstan.
I had a 30min radio interview along with the Head of Communications for UNICEF Kyrgyzstan a couple of days ago and this morning UNICEF hosted a press conference at UN House about the event and flight on Saturday. Originally we had planned it for tomorrow, but the weather doesn’t look great, so we postponed it. It wouldn’t be a good look for 800 kids to be standing in the rain.
I have received the Letter of Invitation for our Uzbekistan Visas within the last hour. We will need to apply for those tomorrow.
The next week will be a busy one.