Words by Tristan Kennedy | Photos by Dan Medhurst
We’re bouncing along the rutted road at 80 kilometres an hour when our driver decides to veer off suddenly. Photographer Dan Medhurst is snapping away at a herd of wild horses out the window and Kostya in the driver’s seat has taken it upon himself to help him nail a close-up.
With his lined face permanently framed by a red pirate’s bandana, Kostya looks like a cross between John Wayne and Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s usually quiet, with the calm, steady demeanour of an experienced outdoor guide. But he drives like Steve McQueen.
As we lurch violently off the track, the heavy body of Dan’s Canon 1DX slams into the bridge of his nose. It’s painful, but we’re all laughing as Kostya starts rounding up the herd, cowboy-style, and Dan shoots frame after incredible frame. “This is mental,” Dan says. “Seriously, where the hell are we?”
“Seriously, where the hell are we?”
The literal answer is that we’re in Kazakhstan, about three hours east of the country’s largest city, Almaty. The real answer is that we’re in the middle of nowhere. At least that’s what it feels like. We’ve come here to explore the canyons and mountains of the country’s south east on bikes. We’ve been camping out in the wilderness for the past two days and we’ve not seen a soul.
This is perhaps unsurprising though. Kazakhstan is vast, but empty. It’s 2,000 miles from Safanovka in the west on the shores of the Caspian Sea to Almaty, which nestles among the Tien Shan mountains in the south-east less than 200 miles from the Chinese border. Yet only 17 million people live here – in a space the size of Western Europe.
This emptiness goes some way to explaining why few people in the UK would be able to point Kazakhstan out on a map, despite its vast size. In fact if they’ve heard of it at all, it’s because of Borat. Sacha Baron Cohen’s comically inept TV journalist supposedly hailed from here and before Dan and I fly out he’s practising his best “yekshemesh” voice. “I’ve got to be careful not to do that every five minutes when we get there,” he says. “I guess they won’t take it too kindly.”
Back In The USSR
When we actually arrive however, it’s nothing like the poor backwater shown in the Borat film – which was actually shot in Romania. In fact the gleaming glass and steel of the new airport building couldn’t be more different. We’re met after immigration by my brother, Rowan, who works as a British diplomat in Kazakhstan. He ushers us through the clamouring ranks of taxi drivers enthusiastically bidding for business with a well-practised “nyet spasibo” (no thank you).
He and I lived here for a period as kids and I’ve been back a handful of times since, but as he drives us into town he explains how much it’s changed. “There are way more cars on the roads these days,” he says. He’s not joking – it’s not yet 6am and already the roads are rammed, with traffic shuffling along nose-to-tail at a snail’s pace. “You see way fewer of the old Russian Ladas or Volgas too – everyone has a Land Cruiser or a Hummer or something massive.”