Tag Archives: Almaty Province

Day 60: “Kazakhstange…” – Almaty

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…”

Day 59: The toilet toll troll – to Almaty, Kazakhstan

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.

“Huh?”

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!”

Tenge

“Will you accept yuan?” I pleaded, getting out some Chinese notes.

Tenge!

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”

Day 59: When we nearly died – Kazakhstan border

The minibus journey that Alexei the Giant had arranged for us from Urumqi was the 61st hitchhike so far. It was long and difficult, through the dark and icy cold, over bumpy roads. Our hosts didn’t seem keen on talking to each other, let alone us, so after several attempts at communication we decided it wasn’t worth it. Michael took the opportunity to have one of the sleeping tablets that a friend had given to us in Bangkok so he was out of it for most of the time.

We were only crawling along up an steep icy hill with a bollard seperating us from the cliff to our left. The minibus was clearly strugging, judging my the screams of the engine and the swearing of the driver. Once one the crest of the hill we were on flatter ground.

There was a clunk from the bowls of our vehicle and I could hear the driver frantically pushing pedals, but nothing was happening. Whilst Michael was sound asleep, the rest of us held our breath as the mini bus started sliding, quite slowly, but totally out of control. We slid towards the bollard separating us from the cliff, and I as I contemplated how strong the barrier was I also wondered if I should have woken Michael, just in case.

As we approached the barrier, no faster than 7 km p/h, the two woman started shrieking and screaming, difficult sounds to take in such a confined space. We bounced off the bollard, and started sliding back towards the otherside, like a bowling ball. We bounced twice more between the barriers until the mini bus lost momentum and we stopped. The women had stopped screaming, and the men got out to inspect the problem.

I thought about getting out as well but seeing as my knowledge of cars amounts to a snake’s of stilts, I stayed put. Besides, it was well below freezing outside and snow looked sharp on the eyes.

Michael awoke for a few moments, lifted his head, chewing, and mumbled something like, “dam seal… thinks he’s so smart”