We woke up at around midday and switched on BBC news –the only English language channel generally available. We realised that something strange had been going on. One week after Michael and I had left Bali, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake shook the island; a day after we left Bangkok the rivers burst their banks and flooded the city; and, recently, there had been a couple of earthquakes in eastern Turkey, exactly where we were scheduled to be in a week or so.
The nearest miss, though, was just around the corner. We wandered around the frozen streets of Almaty, a picturesque soviet-style city. We walked past the monuments and statues, dotted around the city’s numerous parks that proudly commemorate Kazakhstan’s independence. When they’re covered with a clean blanket of snow, like they were when we were there, the place is given a magical sense of calm, especially when the vast snow-capped mountain range to the south comes brooding into view.
We decided that we deserved to celebrate the fact that, having entered Kazakhstan, we’d successfully hitchhiked over 11’000 km, which is more than 50% of our total journey home. We saw a large bar called the Soho Almaty Club and went inside. There was only one other person in there, sat next to us at the bar, and I could tell he wanted to talk to us. He turned out to be the owner of the place, Mukhtar, a jolly old chap with a roaring laugh and an endearing air of pomposity about him.
“Hungry?!” he roared, and before we could reply he snapped his fingers at the barman to bring us something to eat. A few moments later a platter of cold meats was placed in front of us with a white yogurt dip in the centre. We tried a dark, more familiar looking meat first.
“Smoked horse!” our host announced “Very traditional in Kazakhstan”
“Tasty,” we replied, still chewing. And we weren’t lying. We continued through the 6 or 7 types of meat until only one remained; one that we’d both been consciously avoiding. It was flat and circular in shape, pasty white in colour. We both cut a bit off and gave it try.
“Good?” Mukhtar, asked with big eyes.
“Mmmm,” said Michael, while I stayed quiet. It tasted just how it looked –animal fat, not too dissimilar from the leftovers of a rare steak, though without the flavour.
“Horse intestines,” he announced, still beaming.
Glad to move on, Michael picked up a round, white ball, from the edge of the plate and popped it into his mouth.
“So which part of the horse do you reckon these come from?” Michael asked me, holding another one of them between his thumb and forefinger.
“What do they taste like?”
“Like salted milk”
“Probably just the excess from the artificial insemination process I should imagine”
“What?” he replied, chewing.
“Just swallow those down and we’ll talk about it later”
So we’d just eaten, like, a horse, after finishing our selection of equine delicacies and were discussing the necessity of leaving Almaty for Taraz the next day, in an attempt to make a dent in the 1’000 km that we were behind schedule. It was then that Mukhtar informed us that our tab for the day was compliments of the house.
“Are you staying for the evening?” he asked us. “I looked at my watch, it was only 3.30pm”.
“We’ll stay for a couple”
As the place started to fill up, we met a friendly young Russian man called Alexander, in town on business, who insisted on supplying us with a steady supply of whiskey and cokes. He also translated our hitchhiking mission statement into Russian.
Once word spread around that there were a couple of English guys at the bar, one that bared a passing resemblance to David Beckham, and one that bared a passing resemblance to Frodo Baggins, an eager queue of beautiful women, some Russian, some Kazakh, keen to practice their English, soon formed around us. It was at this point that a strange sensation came over me. I looked at the free drinks flowing from Alexander, and then ahead of me, at the bar, where our considerable tab was complements of the house. I then looked at the crowd of gorgeous women, looking like a chorus of angels, eager to talk to us. I heard an eerie, almost creepy, Gollum-like voice, rasping into my ear:
“Staaaay in Almaty. Don’t go to Taraaaaz, staaaaaay in Almaty”
“Must be some kind of sign from God,” I said aloud, “Surely I can’t disobey such a direct order from above?”
“No, Rich, that was me,” said Michael, “I think we should st-“
“A sign from God,” I confirmed to myself, nodding my head.
Before we knew it, it was 5 am, we’d been speaking to some of the most beautiful woman we’d ever seen in our lives. Even though the sun was up, I still had to drag Michael out the place.
“We’ve to hitchhike in 3 hours time” I told him. “My alarm is set”
“Noooo,” he called. “I’m in love! She’s the one…”