The day before we crossed into Kazakhstan remains a blur in my memory. We had decided on a rest day, camped under some riverside trees, before beginning a rush to paddle across Kazakhstan’s vastness in the 30-day period allowed.
After a late breakfast, I wandered over to a couple of men setting up a table and fire nearby. In my halting, childish Russian, I asked if they could order a taxi for us the following day as we would need to cross the border by road. The walk would be punishing with a 30kg kayak among our kit. The larger of the two men, Slava, sat me down and poured out two generous measures of homebrewed brandy. “Nasdroviya”, he chanted, raising his glass. We tipped the caustic hooch down our throats. Slava then said he would drive us to the border himself in the morning and refilled the glasses. I suddenly foresaw the rest of the day with more clarity than I can now remember it.
Slava drove his rammed and riotous jeep home around midnight but was back at 9am bearing cold beers to ease our hangovers. We loaded everything into the car and drove to the border via the police station to say farewell to our comrades from the party. They all looked decidedly more fresh than us. At immigration, an officer noticed that, due to a technicality of my visa, I’d been illegal in Russia for the previous two months. I played dumb and was eventually allowed to leave the country but told I’d need a new visa to re-enter.
The river was different in Kazakhstan. It looked similar but gone were the scores of stolid Russian men sat by motionless fishing rods. In their place was only the occasional weathered Kazakh fishing without a rod, casting by swinging the line above his head like a lasso. There were less little birds nesting in the muddy banks and more vast eagles and hawks circling overhead. Grey herons, startled by our approach, flapped lankily into the air and fled downriver.
We began starting early and finishing late. The days grew hotter, nudging into the low 40s, and we swam every couple of hours to cool off. Lunch was often taken up to our chests in the water. Cows, horses and camels stood in the shallows, drinking and wallowing in the relative cool. Impressively aggressive horseflies attended them. Above the mud banks was a thin growth of trees and behind those was only the dry, desolate Kazakh steppe, stretching off far further than the eye could see. We spotted many snakes: vipers that can kill a human in the unlikely event that they manage to bite. Their fangs are placed awkwardly far back in their mouths.
Tom, a Canadian expat, offered to pick us up from the Caspian and bring us back in his speed boat. In the morning we set off for the final 20 miles of the Ural. Illegal fishing nets cluttered the river and eventually the crumbling mud banks gave way to tall reed walls. The Caspian acts as an international border and at the border patrol point we were turned back. The police were friendly but said we couldn’t paddle the final mile to the open sea visible before us. However, we were informed that we were already a mile or two into the Caspian and the floating reed beds around us were technically sea.
Although a little unspectacular for the completion of a ten week, 1500-mile journey from source to sea, the beers we sipped at 45 knots in Tom’s boat tasted extra good.