Tag Archives: Kazakhstan

The Rich-Mike Hitchhike Insight: Hitchhiking in Kazakhstan

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Everyone hitchhikes in Kazakhstan.

As there are no taxis, every private vehicle can, in effect, pick up hitchhikers and charge them a fee.

Almost everyone we met in Kazakhstan had a finger in a business pie. It was impressive. Ainur, for example, who was about 25, had her own shop and rented her living room out to 6 students, whilst Ali, who was 27, had opened his own private school.

Impressive as the entrepreneurial spirit is, it made it difficult for us to hitchhike in Kazakhstan. Imagine what the people here, newly drunk on capitalism, thought when they saw us? A couple of “rich” Europeans (in spite of our clothes / odor).

We could almost see the dollar signs spinning in their eyes when they saw us. Our hosts were invariably disappointed when we refused to pay the astronomical prices they quoted us.

Although its easy to hitchhike in the cities, it’s difficult to find a fair price

Once out of Almaty, the roads seriously deteriorate and the traffic becomes very infrequent. The infrastructure, however, is changing, as the revenue from oil money starts to trickle into the State’s coffers.

Kazakhstan Hitchhiking Rating: af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15 (4/10)

Day 72-76: “Death to Britain!” – Aktau, Kazakhstan

The next morning, our decision was made for us. We turned on BBC news to see video footage of Iranians burning the Union Jack. Apparently, the British Embassy had been attacked by protesters in response to sanctions.

“Death to Britain!” cried the protesters as they set alight to the embassy buildings.

“Georgia?” I asked Michael.

“Georgia”, he nodded.

By the time we’d read a Foreign Office report urging Britons in Iran to “stay indoors, keep a low profile and await further advice”, it was already a foregone conclusion to avoid the country.

The highlight of Aktau, for me at least, was when we stopped for a coffee in a cafeteria.

“Two coffees please,” Michael asked the waitress

“Kofe?”

“Yes, please. Two,” he said, with two fingers raised.

“Cappuccino?” asked the waitress, in a Russian accent.

“No. Two Americano please. A-mer-i-can-o. Two”

“Americanski?”

“Yes. Two Americanski,” he said, “with milk”

The looked confused.

“Cappuccino?” she asked again.

“No. Two A-mer-i-can-o with milk”

“Milk?”

“Yes, milk. You know: moooooooo,” he said, with his fingers on his head to indicate horns.

The waitress looked at him. She then grabbed a menu from another table, opened it, and said,

“Hamburger?”

“No! Niet hamburger,” he said, losing a degree of his usual calmness. “Two coffee: Americano… with… milk”

“Mike, let’s just get a couple of cappuccinos. They probably don’t have Americano’s here,” I said, conscious that our conversation was gathering an audience.

“No, I got this, hang on,” he replied, with a resolute look on his face.

He looked at the waitress, she returned his gaze.

“Okay,” he said, slowly, “Two Americanski”.

“Two Americanski,” she repeated, nodding.

“With milk,” he added.

“Milk?”

 “Yes. Milk. You know…Milk. Miiiilk,” he explained, as he got up and crouched on the floor of the café on all fours. When he started mooing, I rolled my eyes and got up as well. I then kneeled at his side and pretended to milk him –because otherwise the scene would have looked ridiculous.

The waitress blushed, suddenly aware of everyone in the café watching.

“Erm.. malakom?,” she asked, nervously.

“Yes! MILK!” shouted Michael, pointing both of his index fingers at her like a pair of guns.

He sat down again looking around the café, with a self-satisfied expression on his face, giving the other diners nods of acknowledgement as if he’d just been bestowed an academy award.

The waitress returned with our coffees.

“Two cappuccino!” she said, smiling triumphantly, as she placed the cups on the table.

Michael’s eye started twitching. He took a deep breath in and a long breath out. I passed him the vodka.

Day 69 – House arrest – “Shotgun Aslan”- Aqtobe, Kazakhstan

“What the hell is going on?” I said to Michael the tenth time.

“Not a clue”, replied Michael for the tenth time.

We had had no choice but to just sit back and passively accept whatever turn of events was to follow since we’d apparently been arrested as soon as we’d set foot in Aqtobe.

One of the police officers, Aslan, called me over and pointed to the figure I’d written on the piece of paper to indicate our hotel budget. I nodded, and I handed over the cash to the receptionist. I looked around the lobby. This hotel was clearly more expensive than either one of the previous two we’d been too. Had the police offers negotiated a cheaper room for us? We didn’t know. If they had done this, then why?

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The receptionist handed over a key to the other officer, a beefy looking brute named Bulad, and they ushered us to follow them upstairs. As we passed the second floor, Michael nudged me in the ribs and whispered, “Shotgun Aslan”

“What the hell do you mean ‘shotgun Aslan’?!” I hissed back.

“If things go down badly upstairs, you know, really badly, I shotgun Aslan”.

“Why?!”

“He looks like a more tender rapist”

“Bollocks,” I said, gauging the strength of Bulad’s powerful looking buttocks, as I followed him up the stairs.

It was a bizarre situation and neither of us knew what was going to happen. We stood outside of a room and shared a nervous glance with each other as Bulad fumbled with the key.

“Errr… Thanks?” I said to them, once in our room.

There was a few seconds of silence. I noticed Michael had started to scootch around to Aslan.

Bulad picked up a hotel pen and wrote ‘9:00’ on a piece of paper. He then pointed outside.

“Okay. Thanks?” I said again.

The two police officers left us in our room.

“What the hell just happened?!” Michael said, looking more bewildered than usual.

“Why the hell are they picking us up at 9am?!” I replied.

“I have no idea…”

Later on, the night of strangeness continued. We went down into the hotel lobby with the intention of going out to get some dinner. As we approached the door, however, the security guard stepped in front of us, blocking our way.

“Excuse me,” called the receptionist, in a Russian accent. “You’re not allowed to leave”

“What?!”

“We are under instructions from the police not to let you leave. Aqtobe is too dangerous for tourists at night”

“What?!” barked Michael.

“This is an outrage!” I fumed, feeling the natural British disinclination for arbitrarily restricted liberty. But then we looked outside at the -20 C temperature and, just like that, our indignation seemed to cool.

“Takeaway it is then?”

“Takeaway it is”

“If Aqtobe is too dangerous for tourists at night,” I said chewing my rancid, overly priced takeaway kebab, “then why do the police need to pick us up at 9am?”

Day 68: “Michael the Great Mouse Detective…” – to Aqtobe

Somewhere on the journey, I think it may have been in Kyzlylorda, or some other place that sounds as if someone’s dropped their scrabble tiles, we swapped vehicles and drivers.

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“Hello I’m Michael. What is your name,” said Michael, as slowly and clearly as he could. Dulad translated for us and the driver replied, “Micky” [probably something like ‘Mekai’, but to us sounded like Micky]

“Richard,” I said, pointing at myself.

Literally, nine seconds later, Michael nudged me and asked, “What was the driver’s name again?”

“Think of a famous cartoon mouse created by Walt Disney,” I replied, so the driver would remain unconscious of the fact he’d forgotten his name so soon.

Michael closed his eyes for a couple of seconds in deep concentration.

“Ermm… Basil?” he asked, squinting at me.

“Basil?! Who the hell is Basil?!”

“Basil the Great Mouse Detective”

“Basil the Great Mouse Detective’?! I say ‘think of a famous Walt Disney cartoon mouse’ and you say ‘Basil the Great bloody Mouse Detective’?!”

“Is the driver’s name Basil then?” he said, leaning forward about to address the driver as such.

“Nooo!” I replied, tugging him back by his shoulder, “I’ll give you another clue: the name begins with ‘M’”

Michael thought for a few seconds, looking out of the window, before turning back to me.
“Masil?”

My eye started twitching. I took a deep breath in, a long breath out and I poured myself a large glass of vodka.

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Day 65 – A night in the bowels of a brothel – Taraz

We walked past the mass of other hitchhikers in Korday, and headed up the road towards Taraz. We figured there was no point in trying to compete with the other hitchhikers, because whenever a car pulled over, it was like a scrum, and not speaking the language put us at a severe disadvantage.

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We walked through the wet snow and were picked up faster than expected, by the first Kazakhstani that hasn’t expected money in return. Saken, the driver, took us by surprise at first asking, “Specken ze Deutsch?”

Fortunately though, we dazzled our new host with the full extent of our German lexicon.
“Nein”

Having spent time in Europe, Saken understood the concept of hitchhiking. It was a boring drive, through the dark, listening to a cassette on repeat. This one song, a woody-wood pecker techno remix, was especially painful. I could handle the long daytime drives when I could engage my imagination with the novelty of my surroundings, but night time driving could get very tedious.

Saken dropped us off at what proved to be one of the strangest places either of us has ever stayed. The building, owned by Turkish people, looked like some kind of youth club. There was music pumping out of the main room and there must have been about 20 lorries parked up at the back.

A Turkish man came out to greet us and ushered us inside. The scene that greeted our eyes looked like something straight out of the film From Dusk till Dawn; just replace ravenous, flesh eating vampires with ravenous, flesh eating prostitutes and you get the idea. We’d been dropped off at a brothel.

The ladies of the night, smelling fresh blood, started dancing provocatively around us.

“Rich, I’m scared. What should we do?”

“No sudden movements and don’t make eye contact with anything.”

“I should shut my eyes?”

“No. Keep your eyes open. Just don’t look at anything”

“Right”

We edged our way, back-to-back, through the room, with eyes open, but trying not to look at anything and found a table. A burley woman brought over a couple of plates of borsch, a cabbage soup, with bread, and placed them in front of us. As we ate, we eyed our surroundings like a pair of anxious antelopes drinking at a watering hole.

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After we’d eaten we were led outside and into a small dark and dank boiler room. As the cast iron door slide open, with a deep creaking sound, two rats scampered outside.

We looked at each other.

“More room for us I suppose,” said Michael, as optimistic as ever, and we walked inside.

To the left of the room was a small four step set of wooden stairs into a kind of cubby hole. The cubby hole had a wooden floor with some sheets, a blanket and a pillow, all of which smelled like an old man’s cough. The walls were covered with cardboard and the ceiling had more spider webs than the roof of Little Miss Muffet’s curd and whey pantry.

“I swear those spiders are staring at us” mumbled Mike, out of the corner of his mouth.

“Yeah. And why are those two giggling?”

We could just tell by the mischievous looks in their little spider eyes that they were planning to wait until we fell asleep so they could dance the night away on our faces.

I lay down and considered my situation for a few minutes. To my left was the seedy music pumping out of a sordid brothel; at my feet was a squalid rat den; above me was spider city, where rehearsals for the great midnight dance-off on my face were well under way. And to my right, lay Michael.

Never in my whole life, I thought to myself, have I been so completely and utterly surrounded by such abject squalor and filth.

I shuddered as I contemplated which vulgarity I should try and edge away from.

My eye started twitching. I took a deep breath in, a long breath out and I poured myself a large glass of vodka.

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Day 65: “Let’s just get the hell out of here”

I awoke the next morning with a grim, somewhat world-weary expression on my face. I trudged outside to the shed, like a convict walking the mile, and I opened the door, slowly, with my eyes closed, too scared to look.

If anyone knows of a more depressing and pathetic sight than 15 newborn puppies, huddled together, shivering in the cold, with frozen streaks of vodka piss matted into their furry little faces, I’d please like to hear about it. Maybe then I can efface this horrendous image from my conscience…

I signed heavily and the dog that yapped at me the night before came over to the door. It didn’t yap at me this time though. It just squinted at me, in hatred, and I swear, on my life, I saw that bitch shaking her head in disgust at me. I dragged my feet back into the kitchen where Michael was reading a Kazakhstan newspaper.

“Something wrong mate?” he said, without looking up.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I sniffed.
“You pissed on the puppies as well, didn’t you?”

My eye started twitching. I took a deep breath in, a long breath out and I poured myself a large glass of vodka.

“Let’s just get the hell out of here”

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Day 64: “Orgies and puppies…” – Korday

As we trudged through the sloppy snow towards the highway, in the eyeball freezing rain and the lip burning wind, Ainur turned to us:

“Hey, you can sleep at my house tonight, if you want? I can cook home meal. You can meet my girls! I stay with six Kazakh girls, students, they will looove you!”

It was at this point I had that eerie feeling again: for some strange reason, all of a sudden, every fibre of my being told me to put off hitching, in the bitter cold, to Terrorist-ville Taraz, and instead stay at Ainur’s for the night in Korday, on the Kazak border with Kyrgyzstan.

“Did you hear that Michael? Six girls!”

But he wasn’t listening. He was busy doing the maths on his fingers. After a couple of minutes of earnest arithmetic he turned to me, hesitated, rechecked his figures and then said, “Two girls each?”

“Exactly mate”

We went into a shop whilst Ainur went into her house to prepare it for our stay. Our company in the shop, which evidently also served as a bar, was Alexander and Halim, who were celebrating the latter’s 30th birthday. Alexander was of Russian descent and Halim was Kazak.

With these two we drank a considerable amount of vodka. When posing for a photo I thought it would look good if the birthday boy, Halim, wore my England scarf around his neck.

“Present!” he yelped in excitement.

“Eeerrrm… yeah sure, present,” I replied, already feeling the icy fingers of the Kazakhstan winter caressing my naked neck.

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After we’d shared a bottle or two of vodka with the bibulous pair, Alexander, evidently one of the many  town drunks, was having a teary breakdown on Michael’s shoulder.

“We’d better get going!” I announced.

“Cheers mate”, Mike said to me as we made a hasty exit, “his wet moustache was tickling my ear”

The six girls all lived together in a three room house. It was comprised of a kitchen, a dressing room and a bedroom which also served as the living room. All six girls slept in the one bedroom, some on the sofas, some on the floor.

“Play it cool, Michael, my orgy sense is tingling”

“You have an orgy sense?”

“I don’t know. Something’s definitely tingling though”

“Is it your neck? We could go and ask for your scarf back if you want?”

“No, it’s not my neck! It’s my orgy sense I tells you. Just play it cool”

While Michael and I waited in the kitchen, playing it cool, I suddenly remembered that the last time I’d had a hot shower was a good few days ago. I also regrettably remembered that the last time we’d properly washed our clothes was the day after my birthday, on the 27th of October, three weeks ago,

I attempted a couple of covert sniffs of my armpit, to assess the damage. A pungent aroma assaulted my nostrils. Feeling woozy, I had to physically shake myself back to my senses. Remembering where I was, I looked up and my vision blurred back into focus. To my horror, I realised that at least four of the six girls had been intently watching me through the curtains from the other room.

“Bollocks,” I mumbled, as we were invited inside to meet the girls. Note to self: when you write the book, blame Michael for sabotaging the orgy.

“What did you say?” asked Michael, suspiciously.

“I said ‘after you friend’,” I replied, as I tried to trip him up on our way in.

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We tried to chat to the girls, whose ages ranged from 18 to 23. It was difficult to get any sense out of them though. They were very giggly, very shy and couldn’t speak any English. Whilst we’d been “charming” the girls, Ainur had been outside, where Halim had followed us back. He was apparently desperate for us all to join him at the local billiards room to celebrate his birthday.

When we returned to the flat, slightly tipsy from the vodka, I asked Ainur where the toilet was..

“Follow the path to the outhouse,” she replied.

I stumbled outside into the snow and followed the path in the dark; it must have been minus 10.

My neck was bloody freezing.

I opened the door of what looked more like a shed than an outhouse and, trying to ignore the sound of rats scurrying and squeaking around me, I stepped inside. I peered into the dark, trying to force my eyes to penetrate the blackness, but to no avail. I tentatively sniffed the abyss; it certainly smelled rather peculiar, so I did what any other self respecting bloke, with a skin full of vodka and a freezing cold neck, would have done in my situation: I pissed into the darkness, with my hand cupped over my ear, listening for water.

My endeavour for aural confirmation, however, was interrupted by a rather frantic dog, outside by the open door, yapping at my heels.

“Back off pouch. I have no beef with you”

As I walked back into the house, shivering from the cold, Ainur asked me:

“Did you see the puppies?”

“Puppies?”

“Yes. My dog’s just had 15 puppies. They are in the shed before the outhouse. She always barks like that when people go near them.”

My eye started twitching. I took a deep breath in, a long breath out and I poured myself a large glass of vodka.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

I awoke the next morning with a grim, somewhat world-weary expression on my face. I trudged outside to the shed, like a convict walking the mile, and I opened the door, slowly, with my eyes closed, too scared to look.

If anyone knows of a more depressing and pathetic sight than 15 newborn puppies, huddled together, shivering in the cold, with frozen streaks of vodka piss matted into their furry little faces, I’d please like to hear about it. Maybe then I can efface this horrendous image from my conscience…

I signed heavily and the dog that yapped at me the night before came over to the door. It didn’t yap at me this time though. It just squinted at me, in hatred, and I swear, on my life, I saw that bitch shaking her head in disgust at me. I dragged my feet back into the kitchen where Michael was reading a Kazakhstan newspaper.

“Something wrong mate?” he said, without looking up.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I sniffed.
“You pissed on the puppies as well, didn’t you?”

My eye started twitching. I took a deep breath in, a long breath out and I poured myself a large glass of vodka.

“Let’s just get the hell out of here”

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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”