Thursday, May 14, 2015

A 9-Hour Drive to Karkaraly

Our school had a 5-day weekend, I had a brand-new car, and so...  I decided to go to Karkaraly National Park (called Karkaralinsk in Russian), which is about 400 kilometers southeast of Astana.  I had been planning to go there last summer with a friend, but was unable to do so.

This time I went with two co-workers as well as Sophia.  We all wanted to have an adventure, go hiking, and return with enough time to relax/work/etc.  The town of Karaganda is about halfway between Astana and Karkaraly, and the original plan was to go there after school on Wednesday and spend the night before finishing the drive Thursday morning; however, one of my co-workers was unable to leave Wednesday, so we decided to leave Thursday morning.

We left at 7 am on Thursday.  The sky was crisp and clear, the sun shining bright, and there were very few cars out.  It was Homeland Defenders' Day, a national holiday dedicated to men and to soldiers' work defending the country.

It took about 40 minutes of driving just to get on the Karaganda highway and out of the city.  Then we had about 200 km in front of us. The Karaganda highway is well-known for not being a good road.  I've been on it before - long and narrow, on a steep slope, and set in the desolate, never-ending steppe.  Drivers get bored and reckless, they drive too fast and pass too quickly, causing accidents.  And there plenty of trucks and tractors driving super-slowly, frustrating anyone who is a cautious passer.

Now it is under construction, and there were a few places where the new road - a bona fide freeway - was complete, and it was so nice to drive on these few stretches.  Once this new road is finished, driving to Karaganda will be so easy!

But there were plenty of detours - on dirt roads - which more than made up for the nice stretches.

Although it was hot outside, there was still leftover snow, not yet melted from winter.

We stopped a little more than halfway to Karaganda, at an auto-station in Osakarovka, a village along the way.  An auto-station is like a bus station, but it's for more than just buses - mini-buses and taxis as well.  The station was nice, with 30-tenge bathrooms that were not outhouses, and a small store.   In most of rural Kazakhstan, the only bathrooms you can find are incredibly smelly outhouses, so an indoor one was nice.

As we neared Karaganda, the landscape changed - the fields around us were green, due to recent flooding, and there were small, glistening lakes, and gently rolling hills.  We turned off the highway before Karaganda, to bypass it by going through a village called Aktau.

Maybe this wasn't the best idea.  The entire detour took about 1 1/2 hours, and I don't know how long it would have taken had we just driven through Karaganda.  The road to Aktau was narrow and pot-hole filled; but once we reached Aktau, we weren't exactly sure where to go.  I turned right where I thought I should, but soon the road turned to a dirt one.  Well, this area was recently flooded, so maybe this is a result of the flooding?  After a turn onto a paved road and a few more minutes driving, we stopped and asked people, who directed us to turn around.  They said to turn right at the next main road and then pass the cemetery and then keep going straight - all the way to Karkaraly. 

But after the cemetery the road veered sharply right and turned into a dirty road again, and it felt like we were heading back to where we had started.  So we stopped and asked some fishermen - we were supposed to turn between the cemeteries (a Russian one and a Muslim one side by side, with a road between).

Finally, we were back on the correct road, and we stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom and eat.  Here was the intersection between the road leading from Karaganda and the highway to Karkaraly; there even was a sign, and we knew were were correct.  The people at the gas station said it was 200 km to Karkaraly; a 3-hour drive they said.

It was noon when we left the gas station; we'd been traveling for 5 hours now.  Luckily, I was not yet tired and still enjoying the drive and change of scenery.
The road goes on forever....

Not far from this intersection, we passed the town of Botakara.  Botakara was most recently hit by the flooding, and perhaps the large pond at the side of the road was a result of this flooding.  The pond was packed with men fishing - relaxing and enjoying their holiday.
Botakara fishermen

The center of Botakara is a large hill and as we rounded this hill, we entered a landscape with more hills. The winding road took us up, down, and around these rocky yet green hills, and it was quite a pleasant drive.  We must be getting closer to the mountains of Karkaraly! I thought.

I was wrong, for soon the hills ended and we were back in steppe.  The narrow road was interesting - filled with potholes and pothole fillings as always, but made of changing rock.  For a while it was zebra-striped - black and white stripes of pavement.  It didn't look like it was done on purpose, and I don't know if it once was all one color and the stripes were the result of wear and tear; or if the stripes were just how it was made, due to the rock available.
Striped road

Then the road started turning pink - maybe pink granite?  And a few more hills arrived, and small mountains loomed in the distance.
Pink road

Finally, we entered the town of Karkaraly.  The hotel owner had told us to turn left before the first 5-story building, and we had a debate as to what constitutes a 5-story building.  I was sure I saw one - but the first floor and top were just basement and ceiling, so they didn't count.  (Yet they looked like real floors to me!)

Welcome to Karkaraly!

The road was very potholed, and we bounced quite a bit, but at this point we were used to it.  Parts of the highway leading to here had seemed very much like a roller coaster.

We turned and went out of the town.  At some point, I can't remember when, if it was before the town or just after, the landscape change and there were trees (mostly fir) everywhere.  It was so wonderful to be in a forest!

Outside of the town, we reached a tiny guard station, where we paid 198 tenge per person to enter the national park.  He had a map of the park that included trails, and so we stopped and observed this map and took pictures.  Maps in Kazakhstan are hard to come by, especially detailed ones, and I've never found one with trails!  I have co-workers who go on frequent outdoor adventures, and they have never found maps with trails either.

Then we drove some more, turned onto a dirt road and once again onto a smaller dirt road, and we finally made it to our hotel - жемчужина (Zhemchuzhina, or Pearl in English).  It was two stories with an outdoor, curving staircase, and looked rather old and decrepit on the outside. But the inside was clean and updated and the hostess was kind.

It was 4 pm now, and I had been driving (with a few breaks) for 9 hours.  After a quick lunch, I went straight to bed, while Sophia and my friends took a walk around the lake.

Luckily, I love to drive, and luckily, the scenery was amazing and made the 9 hours worth it.  I was quite glad to finally be there!

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