When we first planned our journey we had decided to try and get a bus from Urumqi into Kazakhstan. We told ourselves, it would be the only time we paid for transport. Now that we’d arrived in Urumqi, having hitchhiked 9’163 km, it felt strange contemplating a bus journey. I won’t lie, the idea of relaxing for 12 hours and eating up 1000 km felt pretty good compared to hitting the road and braving the elements but there was something about it that just didn’t sit well in the stomach.
We went for a few drinks at the excellent Fubar, a buzzing expat bar, next to People’s Park, and discussed the matter. As we were drinking and talking I spotted a heavy set bloke out of the corner of my eye with ‘Kazakhstan’ emblazoned across the back of his top. I got a glimpse of his face as he turned around slightly: he had a prominent, stubbled chin and a pair of blue eyes, deeply set in his large skull. A huge silver chain was hung around his neck and dangled over his jumper.
We flipped a coin to decide who would go over to speak to him and, as I lost, I downed the remainder of my beer, took a deep breath and went on over. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he spoke English. He shook his head. Through a sheer stroke of luck, the waiter we’d been talking to earlier, Azi, from Tajikistan, who spoke flawless English, just happened to be clearing away the drinks from his table. I asked Azi to translate our story to him. As he told our tale, the Kazakhstani listened, giving nothing away. If anything he just looked like his was bored and wanted to get back to his drink. Once the story was finished he stood up, pressed his lips into his mouth and then crushed my hand like a bear. As I’d been so used to Chinese handshakes, it was a shock to get such an iron grip.
“Alexei,” he rumbled, with his thumb, as thick as one of my legs, pressed into his chest.
“Richard,” I murmured, with my thumb, as thick as one of his chin hairs, pressed into my chest. The giant bought me a drink and, with the help of Azi, I asked him if he was going back to Kazakhstan anytime soon.
“No, he is sorry to say that he is not,” replied Azi. I was gutted! I invited Alexei back to our table for a drink nonetheless, but he declined because he was waiting for some friends. I walked back to our table to see Michael’s eager face trying to judge what had transpired.
“I thought we were on there, mate” I said. “Bloody good bloke he was. Look at the state of my hand!”
We drank a few Boddingtons for a massive £4.50 each and forgot about Alexei as we chatted away to a Chinese pair called Sonic and Chun Lee. They spoke great English and told us about the racial tensions between the Chinese Han and the Uigher populations that escalated into the riots a couple of years ago.
“Everyone was using bricks, sticks, knives and anything as weapons. They would ask ‘are you a Uighur?’ If they kept silent or couldn’t answer in the Uighur language, they would get beaten or killed”
Late on in the night I got a tap on shoulder from Azi.
“The Kazak has found you a ride if you want it. He’s been trying all night calling everyone he knows. A friend’s sister’s friend is going to Almaty in two days time”
Michael and I looked at each other. It had been a while since I’d experienced it, but the impact was the same. A euphoric sense of exhilaration, relief and excitement surged through my veins.
“We’re going to Kazakhstan”, we said, with a clink of our glasses.