From Mongolia, we drive directly onto the Chuysky Trakt. Were it not for the fact that smooth asphalt stretches under our wheels, and the landscape would not indicate that we have already entered Russia.
The boundless azure sky stretches above us. The heavy cottonwool of snow-white clouds lies on the rocky mountain slopes with spots of shadow. And the mountains are like a stage in a theatre. Lower, greener ones give way to higher ones – the more dangerous and at the same time more beautiful. The colours of the mountainous theatre change like in a kaleidoscope: lush green, precious gold, beautiful brown, sinister black softened by the pureness of white snow, blinding with reflected sun rays. Sometimes the jagged, pointy rocks almost reach our homebulance. They are about to scratch it with sharp teeth when the winding road changes direction at the last moment and leads to safe proximity of the crystal mountain river.
We stick to its rapid, foam-spitting current which like a mischievous rascal, pulls washed dishes from our hands and freezes the body during bathing. When exasperated by its tricks, we are about to leave, and it lures again with a flash of emerald water, turned-ruby at sunset.
Accustomed to Mongolian guests, we are no longer surprised by shepherds on horseback who appear at our windows again and again. Sometimes, their excuse is a lost herd of horses, sometimes they give up pretexts and follow the pure human curiosity that the savoir-vivre of civilization has not yet destroyed. From time to time, a herd of cows shows up for a snack made of apple and banana peels. Later the skittish goats appear, which cannot be bribed with any tasty treat. In the evening, ground squirrels flit under the camper’s threshold and from the flip-flops abandoned under the entrance eat the sunflower seeds prepared for them. Finally, dusk comes, and stray dogs with it. They don’t scorn over fish-flavoured cat food, and for a few handfuls lie under the door all night, barking warningly at the truck drivers who park next to us.
We use the full length of the 30-day visa and drive lazily from place to place. Two weeks later, however, the engine ominously begins to sweat with oil. With each passing hour, the black spots under the homebulance are growing bigger. Somehow, we manage to get to the mechanic in a little town of Biysk, where we hear a dreadful sentence. The full engine has to be rebuilt.
Biysk becomes our home for almost two weeks. We already know the route from the hostel to the mechanic by heart. We also know by heart all the street vendors in the bazaar, where we buy forest-fragrant mushrooms, sweet tomatoes as big as boxer’s fist and warm bread with a golden, crispy crust. Every time the stall owners ask how is the homebulance doing and with the wishes of all the best, they add some free cucumber or other cauliflower.
When we finally pick up the car, it purrs like a happy kitten. We would also purr, were it not for the fact that we only have two days left on our visa and three hundred kilometres to the Russia-Kazakhstan border. On top of that, the mechanics advise checking the injectors. They could not do it as they do not have proper tools. If the car breaks down during these two days, we will be illegally in Russia.
Miraculously, however, we reach the border on time and without problems. So far…
“Do you have visas?”
“We have FAN IDs. We got it together with the FIFA World Cup ticket, and it serves as a visa” – we explain to the customs officer when leaving Russia.
“But the tournament ended in July, and it is September already.”
“Yes, but your president has extended the validity of the FAN ID until the end of the year.”
“Oh, yes, that’s correct” – the officer nods with understanding and adds – “but the tournament ended in July, and it is September already. I have to call the manager.”
The manager appears. Tall, slim, dark-eyed, dark-haired. A heartthrob in black leather.
“Please follow me” – he leads us to an office building away from the customs booths – “I will make a few phone calls, and we’ll explain the matter.”
Sure! We have time. In the office corridor, we wait patiently, glued to plastic chairs. Fatigue, hunger and the whole situation puts us in a mood of merry hysteria. We laugh at silliest things while waiting for the manager’s decision. The man, time and again, emerges from the office with assurances about the phone calls being made. Sure! We have time.
Finally, the manager asks Andrzej to the office. I stay in the corridor. Minutes stretch on forever, and I start to worry. After an hour, both gentlemen leave the office laughing.
“We have to wait for the manager.”
“But I thought this is a manager.”
“This is Sasha. He is the head of this border crossing, but now we are waiting for his manager.”
“Oh, OK. But did you tell him that Putin extended the validity of FAN ID until the end of the year?”
“Yes. He knows. But the tournament ended in July, and now it is September.”
“IT HAS BEEN EXTENDED UNTIL THE END OF THE YEAR!”
“Yes. He knows. And we have to wait for the manager’s manager.”
A moment later, the manager’s manager enters the office. A short, stocky and impressively bald man with intelligent eyes sharply glancing from the smiling face. Andrzej again disappears in the office. After two hours, three laughing men reappear in the corridor.
“Well! It’s done” – booms the manager’s manager.
“The next time you are in Russia, let me know. In the end, the visa is only a stamp in the passport. It can always be arranged” – adds Sasha laughing.
Both gentlemen lead us to the customs booth, where we get visa stamps without any problems.
“What, on earth, happened in there?” – I ask, baffled.
“Nothing. They just wanted to chat.”
On the Kazakh side, we leave the camper in a not too long queue of cars and head to passports control. One of the guys waiting in the line asks:
“You are from Poland, correct?”
“Under USSR I was stationed in Poland, in Jelenia Gora.”
“Oh! My family comes from there” – I shout out happily.
“I was there for two years. I am Marat” – the stranger introduces himself – “Here is my number. Let me know once you reach Pavlodar.”
“Thanks a lot. In fact, we would be grateful for a mechanic recommendation. We have to replace injectors.”
“Done! Just let me know once you get to the city. Oh, and if the police stop you, just say you know me. You will have a “green corridor” – Marat bids his goodbyes and adds – “I work in the prosecutor’s office.”
Visas to Russia are taken care of. “Green corridor” in Kazakhstan ensured. Everything in just one day. What else will happen? My meditations are interrupted by the customs officer checking the car.
“House on wheels, yes?”
“Yes. Here is the bed, kitchenette, and over there is a shower-slash-wardrobe” – we recite a standard litany.
“Good, good. And what’s at the back?”
“Garage – clothes, food.”
Andrzej opens the trunk. The officer looks with an utter horror at all the boxes piled up in the garage.
“And what about guns? Do you have any?”
“Are we allowed to have?” – Andrzej asks in response.
“No! Of course not!” – the officer denies vigorously.
“Well, then we don’t have.”
“All right. You can go.”
After an express inspection of the vehicle, we reach the last customs officer at the entrance to Kazakhstan. He carefully checks passports and asks:
“Two persons, yes?”
“No partisans at the back?”
We enter Kazakhstan laughing our lungs out.
In Pavlodar, just before the city limits, we pull over to a muddy square with a town of garages. The left side of the square opens up to a courtyard filled with all sort of cars. Some of them stand on bare rims, lame without wheels, blind with missing headlights and blinkers. Others, with a yawn of open hoods, queue in front of three huge gates of a workshop, where mechanics run around in busy yet controlled chaos.
Noticing us, two men in grey overalls break out of the bustle and hurry to find out why the ambulance has arrived in their yard.
“Injectors and a shock-absorber must be replaced”, explains Marat, whom the day before we met at the border and who immediately felt responsible for taking care of us.
“Oh. We need to order the shock absorber from Astana. It will take a while”, says the shorter mechanic scratching the tip of the baseball hat, covering unruly strands of hair.
“And it is Friday today. We are closing soon. The parts – we will be able to order them only on Monday. If the boss approves”, apologetically adds the other mechanic – a tall, skinny guy with a shy smile.
Great! It means at least a week delay. But what to do? The car needs to be fixed.
“Do you know where we can stay? Somewhere nearby?”, asks resigned Andrzej.
“All hostels are in the city centre. I don’t think there is anything here, nearby”.
“It may be a parking lot though. We can sleep in the car. We just need it to be close by”.
“You live in the car?”, mechanics amaze in perfect unison.
A ‘guided tour’ around the camper exerts an impression strong enough, that we are offered a corner at the end of the workshop yard.
The following days result in ordered spare parts, fixed injectors, repair of a few minor defects, the existence of which we had no idea about and a complete adoption by the mechanics.
“Do you have Instagram? I have to show it to my wife! She will not believe it!”, tall and skinny Andrei like a sponge absorbs all information about our journey. Soon, he knows our past and future route better than we do ourselves.
Sasha, with unruly strands of hair falling from under the baseball hat, fixes all the car electrics and brings us bags of tomatoes. Because we have to eat something, and Kazakh tomatoes are the best!
An owner of one of the cars treated by the guys – a chubby, smiley chap – gives us half a sack of potatoes because they are just like tomatoes – Kazakh! The best!
A bearded night guard invites us for tea. Over an earl grey and cookies, he shows photos from family trips. Shares his anthropological and philosophical observations, even touching on dinosaurs. Talks about how it was affordable to buy a plane ticket for a scholarship during Soviet times and how it all changed now. He talks about his motorcycle accident and tells us to watch out for Ginger as he may bite.
And Ginger, a shaggy, old dog chained at the workshop entrance, ignores us on a par with other workshop-mates.
A perfect, complete adoption.
Finally, the day of tears and sadness comes. The car is fixed. It is time to drive on.
The night before departure, there is a knock at our door. The bearded night guard enters the camper. His tall, wide-shouldered posture barely fits in the car.
“I brought you a gasoline burner. Winter is coming. It may be useful”.
We can hardly fall asleep. The morning is even worse. We say our goodbyes. Amongst the pats on the back and wishes of a wide, safe road, we are preparing to leave. Ginger barks like he got possessed. He will miss us too — especially his fish-flavoured cat food feeding sessions.
“Go, go now. All the best on your journey. I have your Instagram and will follow you for sure!”, promises Andrei, saying goodbye.
“Meh, I do not have the patience for all these Instagrams and Facebooks”, complains Sasha, “but give me your number and will stay in touch on WhatsApp”.
A few days later we get a Facebook notification: ‘Your page has one new like’. In the details of the new account, there is no photo or any information. But the name speaks for itself – “Sasha Electric”.