After driving through the night, just before we crossed the border, at around 6 am, we stopped at a service station. I got out of the minibus, stretched my legs and scratched my stomach. As I looked around drearily for the toilets, I had to brace myself against the cold and I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck. It was difficult to remember how we could have struggled in the heat of South East Asia.
“Ah ha,” I said, spying the door.
“Tenge,” I heard someone burp besides me. I looked down to see an abominable old troll-woman with her paw out.
“Tenge,” she repeated, apparently annoyed at my hesitation.
“I haven’t got any tenge, I’ve just bloody got here. Be gone toilet toll troll!”
“Will you accept yuan?” I pleaded, getting out some Chinese notes.
Defeated, I moped back to the bus to see if I could swap some money with someone when, just next to me, a couple of Kazakh men, both over 6ft tall and with the physiques of wrestlers, started shouting at each other.
Is that a headache brewing? I thought, as I rubbed my eye with the palm of my hand.
As the argument grew more heated, one of the men suddenly launched himself into an audacious flying head-butt from 3 metres away! It was phenomenal. They then started scuffling right next to me. I looked around. I was the only one near them. I looked up at a bus to see that everyone was watching. It’s up to you, Rich.
“Stop [cough] now,” I said, wagging a finger, sounding less than convincing. It didn’t work. Conscious that more people had gathered to view the spectacle I decided to change tact.
“Come on lads, pack it in,” I said, tugging on one of the guys’ sleeves. I must have looked like a daughter asking for some sweeties. I felt a man come up from behind me, grab both my arms and drag me away. Somewhat inexplicably, I started kicking my legs as if I was in some kind of rage at being dragged away from the action. Once out of main sight, I stopped kicking immediately.
“My work here is done,” I said, dusting my hands.
A few other men joined in and soon it became a four-on-one fight against the head-butt guy. The head-butter tried to pick up a spade next to the toilet toll troll who was forced to scuttle away from her post. I saw my chance and darted into the unguarded toilet with all the stealth of a ninja.
Welcome to Kazakhstan, I thought to myself, as I heard the bang of someone’s body against the door.
I just couldn’t resist giving the toilet toll troll a little wink and a smile as I got back into the minibus. I think I even may have thrown in a tap of my empty bladder and an audible gasp of satisfaction for good measure. She scowled back at me, no doubt cursing my toilet-toll dodging bones.
Later that day, sometime in the afternoon, we realised that that the last meal we’d had was in the Fubar, 30 hours ago, in Urumqi. Except for a packet of biscuits, we’d had nothing. The problem was that we didn’t have any of the national currency, Tenge. We planned to get some at a service station or at the border, just like we had done at the other border crossings, but so far there’d been none.
We pulled into a service station and our surly hosts stomped off to get some dinner. The smell of the food in the cafe was torturous. We shivered miserably, watching everyone else scoff done their hot meals. Even worse, perhaps, was the knowledge that we still had seven or eight hours to go, at least, until we arrived in Almaty, which would be the middle of the night.
To take our mind off things, we mustered up the energy to talk to a man called Mika.
“Are you eating,” asked Mika, who could speak good English having spent some time in Ireland.
“No,” we said, forlornly, dribbling and shivering with hunger. Just as we were about to get back onto the bus, Mika came out.
“Michael, Richard, come, I have food for you!”
“Oh thank you Mika, but we have no money,” I said, through chattering teeth.
“There is no ATM and they don’t accept card here,” said Michael, with his lower lip quivering like a finger on a Morse code dial.
“No problem! It’s a gift from me and Kazakhstan!”
It was only a simple meal of rice and lamb stew, but it has to go down as one of the best meals I have had in my entire life. We inhaled the food like pigs in a trough. It was like a metaphor for hitchhiking: the adversity that you have to endure, in the bad times, makes the good times, all the more satisfying.
With hot food inside us, the remaining time on the bus was infinitely more enjoyable. The spell, however, was broken when we arrived in Almaty, at around 2 am, when we were unceremoniously dropped off at the bus station. The cold instantly penetrated our clothes, which were woefully unsuited to our new environment. The only extra clothing either of us had bought since the tropical climes of South East Asia was a pair of gloves and a soviet style hat. I’d also found a pair of trousers in a hotel room, in north-west China, which gave my legs a vital extra layer of protection. So, two trousers, four T-shirts, a jumper, my beloved England hat and scarf from World Cup 2010 and my soviet style hat. Michael was similarly attired.
We wandered down a road towards the train station and two different cars pulled over to ask if we wanted a lift anywhere.
“I know my Traveller’s Highway Code,” I thought to myself, “No unlicensed taxis for us tonight thank you Mr Mugger, and don’t think I don’t know your game either, Mr Rapist, you crafty little scamp”
By the time the third car pulled over, however, the cold had penetrated a little deeper. We hopped in and asked to be taken to the train station.
“500 Tenge ($3),” he said.
“200,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
Having visited America, the young lad was able to hold a basic conversation in English. We told him about our adventures and that we were planning to hitchhike across Kazakhstan.
“It is too cold here, there are no roads. You will die”