We left Almaty on Monday morning and about 350 kilometers into our trip our car broke down. We were pretty angry because we had taken the car for a full tune up just last week. We had told the mechanic we were going on a two-month road trip all around Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and to make sure our car was fully prepared.
When I called to say our car had broken down do you want to know what the mechanic said? “Your car has an electrical problem, that’s probably what’s going on.” WTF??? What part of we’re going on a massive two-month road trip through two countries where we don’t speak the languages and we really need to make sure our car is ready did you not understand????????
We pulled over on the side of the road, popped our hood up, and stood there for a bit. It only took about two minutes. One of the first cars that drove by us turned around and came back to help us. They didn’t speak any English, we don’t speak any Kazakh, and our Russian is poor, but a broken-down car is universal.
The guys tried a few things but nothing worked. They communicated that they’d call someone else to help us. We pulled our camping chairs out of the back of our car and kicked back under the shade of a tree. We were in the middle of nowhere and a dog walked up! I love dogs! I was excited! It was happy to see us, wagged its tail, hung out by us, but wouldn’t let us touch it. While I was trying to pet the dog a police car pulled up.
We went up to talk to the police. They were friendly. They tried to start our car but couldn’t. After they had only been there a few minutes a tow truck pulled up. The first people had come through for us! They really had called a tow truck for us! The tow truck driver spoke with the police for a bit and then he loaded us up. Before we were off, another police car pulled up! I’m pretty sure this police car just wanted to see the Americans broken down on the side of the road in a small town in the middle of Kazakhstan.
It turned out it was a national holiday in Kazakhstan. We didn’t know that. There was no mechanic anywhere around willing to work on our car. The tow truck driver agreed to drive us to the next small town. We really were in the middle of nowhere. He had been just driving us down the road and randomly stopping at gas stations with garages and even at people’s homes and asking if anyone would work on our car.
We stayed in a town called Taraz at a shitty hotel that didn’t even have hot water for showers. The ceiling of the bathroom looked like it was going to cave in on us and the knob on the door to our room was so fragile we were afraid to touch it, we opened and closed the door via the lock. But! The receptionist was amazing! We’d stay there again just for him! We had had such a stressful day. It had been awful. This guy was really patient with us and our lack of any way to communicate with him in a language he understood and he ordered delivery food for us.
The next morning, he was in the process of trying to find a mechanic to come to the hotel and fix our car for us when a fellow guest just happened to say hello to us in English. What?????? Someone that spoke English???? Here??? What were the chances??? This guy was from Kyrgyzstan but has been living in the US since the 1990’s! He’s a long-haul truck driver and just happens to be traveling through Kazakhstan right now. He’s traveling with a good friend who’s a mechanic!!!!!! They fixed our car for us!!!
So, we were on our way! We drove about three hours and got pulled over by the police. Now, had this been me of 15 years ago I would have been terrified. Heck, had this been me of 7 years ago I would have been terrified, but me today? Naw. You want to know what we did? Or what my husband did? He laughed at them. Literally. Here’s how it went down:
The kid and I sat in the car; the cops told the husband to come back to the car with him. They tried to get him to pay a $300 USD bribe. He LOL’d at them. He told me one of them laughed when he laughed at the cop. So my husband laughed directly in a cop’s face and then the other cop laughed at that. So, they went back and forth and back and forth the cop trying to get a bribe out of him and my husband kept insisting just give me the ticket. That’s not what they want. They don’t want to give you the ticket. They want you to pay a bribe. In the end, we paid a bribe. $10 USD. Yes, you read that right. $10. The cops originally tried to get $300 out of us.
We’ve lived in China and Benin. These Kazakh cops aren’t going to get shit outta us.
Eventually we made it to the Uzbek border. I had read horror stories online about the Zhibek Zholy border crossing and since we have our own wheels, we drove the extra kilometers to the Kaplanbek border where I had read it was much easier to get across. But when we got there were no other cars, only semi-trucks. A guy came out and told us there were no cars allowed at this border crossing. I had the distinct feeling he was lying to us, but we had had such a stressful time getting here so far, we just didn’t have it in us to find out if he was lying or not. We turned the car around and headed toward the dreaded Zhibek Zholy.
Wow! It was annoying. It was almost empty. There were maybe three other cars there and it still took us four hours to get through customs. I cannot even imagine going through there on a busy day and I do not recommend it. We would never do it again. If we ever visit this country again, we’ll fly in and rent a car. We have no idea what took so long. It seemed as if it was all for show. Every time we thought we were finished they’d call us over to another window and ask us more questions. It was borderline absurd. We were there an hour and a half after already having had our passports stamped! Really! I’ve read stories online of fights breaking out at that border due to the stress and oh my god! I can understand why. There was literally no one in line when we were there, no one, and if I had been there just one more hour, I would have been ready to start screaming. That place must be complete insanity on a busy day. Truly, if you’ve just randomly stumbled upon my blog because you’re thinking of doing this trip…. oh my god…. do not enter through this border. My husband and I are well seasoned travelers. Uzbekistan is our 39th country to visit together. We arrange all our own travels, and we have the utmost amount of patience, but wow! This I can really see how this place could drive someone to violence. We did it in the middle of the pandemic when there was almost no one around and it took us four damn hours to get through. Only do it if you’re a masochist.