DAY 6 in Almaty. DAY 1 in Kyrgyzstan.
After an oily breakfast at an oily bistro, at which we were quickly becoming regulars (and at £1 per meal who would hold it against us? Our parents? Our bowels?), and a 2km reccy back to the car, Dom was set for his adventure/exile to Kyrgyzstan.
He would hitchhike the 500km to Bishkek and back over a 24 hour period. Dom, a veteran adventurer, had an illustrious and much storied background to grant him confidence. To begin with, he had racked up a full 2 miles hitching in Devon’s fairly tame moorland on a moderately sunny Sunday morning. Hitching twenty times further through Kazakhstan’s largely uninhabited mountainous borderland was probably going to be different. Cornering two hitchhikers who were staying at the hostel before he set out, he enlightened himself as to the proper decorum with a couple of searching questions (“so… do you actually just stick your arm out, then?” and “is it better to be walking or standing still?”)
Perhaps this plan was a figment of being recklessly bored of dorm-room incarceration in Almaty, but it did seem better than the alternative options, which included getting a train 2,000km to Novosibirsk, Russia or simply waiting it out and hoping the drive shaft came in time for a speedy repair and an uneventful escape from Kazakhstan. And with our luck with delivery companies, spending 24 hours being driven through wilderness by strangers seemed preferable.
So in the midday sun, Dom caught a taxi to a bus stop, a bus to a bus station and walked until he was clear of Almaty.
The problem with getting a lift outside large cities in Kazakhstan is the fact that everyone is running a taxi service, because it is legal for anyone to collect strangers in their car from the side of the road and to charge them for the service. Before he managed to get a lift, more than 10 taxis stopped by: often seeing another car drive away inspired them to take their chances and pull over, leading to chains of disappointed commuters: taking a scruffy English kid to Bishkek for free was no one’s idea of fun.
Eventually, a taxi with a single spare seat picked him up. Wedged in the front seat with his unnecessarily bulky rucksack on his lap, Dom double-checked that the man did not want money. He simply appeared to be curious. And to be an evangelical Muslim intent on conversion. For it was only the words that referred to Islam that Dom was able to recognise. Twisting awkwardly in his seat, he took in the three female passengers in the back, who smiled laughingly at him. When Dom returned his gaze to the road he noticed that they were navigating a crowded car park at some speed, evidently in an attempt to short circuit the unreasonably hectic traffic on the road alongside them. Horn held firmly down, pedestrians fleeing in indignant terror, the driver continued to name-drop Allah and chat at Dom cheerfully, occasionally looking back at the road. Eventually, once they were past the thick of it, he let Dom out with a promise that it would be easier to catch a lift from the new spot. Wistfully, Dom realised he had simply succeeded in hitching to a place that was too far to walk back to Almaty from, and barely closer to his destination.
The tactic that succeeded in securing his next lift was as follows. Stand still with your bag on the floor. Attempt to make eye contact with the driver and when you succeed, gesture very slightly with your outheld arm. At the very least, the drivers will shake their heads in apology.
The outskirts of Almaty look a lot more like what I pictured of Kazakhstan prior to the trip and contrast severely with the large swathes of the city occupied by trendy restaurants and entire districts of 5 star hotels. “Dusty” is a word we use a lot to describe Central Asia, but this is unavoidable. The substance suspended in the air and lying thick on the ground is too fine and filthy to be sand, sticks to everything, powders your throat and burns your eyes. In the dust, people of every variety mill chaotically, often walking into the middle of the road to hail taxis or standing in large, impassable and highly vocal groups. Shacks and stands and people pushing trolleys loaded with products make up the commercial architecture, whilst the background ambience is largely determined by the tenor of the orchestral chorus of car horns, cutting through sulphur-yellow, low octane petrol fog.
The person who eventually got Dom to the border was not, by anyone’s account, pretty. His teeth gleamed gold from the blackish depths of the cabin of his truck. His only hobby, as far as Dom could glean through two hours of dictionary-mediated ‘conversation’, was alcohol. When asking after the contents of the truck the driver only shook his head in grim wordlessness.
Perhaps out of some romantic notion of frugality, Dom had purchased a couple of rounds of bread and not much else to keep him nourished while travelling, and the odd-couple shared this on the journey. They talked about the driver’s children, his wife and his destination and regularly fell into tense silence in between bouts of stuttering incomprehension, which was broken only when Dom pulled out his harmonica and broke the instrument itself.
The mountains that divide Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan run down to the road on your left, and as you drive away from Almaty they fade away, counting down the miles to the pass. On your other side there is endless grass, carpeting endless country. Eventually they arrived in Korday, the border town. After a 2km walk to the actual crossing (which was in the process of closing) Dom was through, with no assurance that he’d be able to get back. On the other side, after determinedly walking for 20 minutes, Dom caved and hitched the final 20km in a lavish 4×4. The driver helped him find somewhere to stay and asked for 200 Som (£2) for his trouble.
Bishkek felt less wealthy than either Shymkent or Almaty. Everything other than the roads was on a smaller scale. In the dark, Dom went out foraging. Clearly a foreigner in a part of town that seemed unused to foreigners, he walked into a small family-run café. He had to actually walk through someone’s living room to get to the kitchen, saying hello to a teenager in school uniform studying as he passed through. As in many places, it was the teenagers who ended up translating the menu into English whilst the mother stared on in amused confusion. Little did Dom know how this functional small talk would damage his mental health.
It began during the meal, with just one girl sitting opposite, talking about school. But whilst the other customers at the restaurant filtered out, she was joined by a sister and a cousin, then a second cousin and an aunt. With mounting terror, he mopped up the last of the ketchup covered dumplings as he was gradually surrounded by three generations of Kyrgyz women, none of whom had ever left the country. To his despair, they bombarded him relentlessly with nonsensical English non sequiturs such as “Red is my favourite colour”. Feeling intensely nervous about the way things were going, he feigned ‘nodding contemplatively’ in response to being told “London is the capital of Grrrreat Brrrrritain” for the second time, all the while priming himself for a crafty escape. In a lull in the barrage he put one hand in the air and paused for effect, “well, I’ve always thought…” he started, before bursting precipitously through their formation to beat a flustered exit, laughing hysterically into the night. A close shave (but unfortunately not the kind his face so desperately needed).
DAY 7 in Almaty,
A phone call that morning to DHL brought back distressing news. We had known that the drive shaft had been in customs for two days now, but it became apparent that this was only because they needed more information from us. We set to work immediately. We needed a scan of Jack’s girlfriend’s mum’s passport. DHL also requested a receipt for when she had purchased the passport, a thumbprint, a urine sample and a lock of her armpit hair. Not having any of the above, Ollie was ready with chewing gum, a pen knife and cardboard to craft something together. Without a printer, everything had to be made by hand. It took most of the morning, but in a feat of remarkable bureaucracy, we created a passable passport fake that day using more or less just our minds and a couple of sharpies. Jack cut off some of his leg hair, and we convinced a French Vietnamese woman we encountered in the street to pee for us. Sweat popping out on his brow, Jack forged Jeanne’s mum’s signature and the deed was done.
With all of this achieved, the drive shaft’s ETA was “within 2-3 days”. This, very evidently, was political correctness gone mad. It was the EU fucking up everything as usual. It was immigrants taking our jobs. In the first place we were given an estimate of 1-3 working days. If it takes an item 2 or more days just to get out of customs it was unclear how with any conscience they could give us that initial estimate to go all the way from England to Kazakhstan. Furious, Jack set about using his connections to pose a legitimate threat of nuclear response should DHL fail to comply with our demands. When DHL grasped the threat of nuclear holocaust, they agreed to “see what they could do”.
When this was all over, we were slightly bored. “I just NEED some CULTURE!” screamed Steve, his voice breaking with emotion, his fingers curled and the ligaments on his neck standing out, humming with tension. Hemmed in by bunk beds on all sides, the team were in a desperate crisis.
“OK” said Jack, flustered, “Jeez.” The team was breaking down without Dom. Without him there to be over-reactive and up-tight about everything, the burden was spread unevenly between the others.
And so we set out for the “Museum of Modern Suffering”, which for obvious reasons shares a building with the Museums for the Kazakh State, for its Art and for its Musical Instruments. Yet when we arrived at the place marked on the map, instead of finding a museum of modern suffering, we found a secondary school, the bureau of criminal investigations and a marriage councillor.
Haranguing a nearby travel agent got us a different address. The address was different because it was for a different museum; “Central Museum”. This was set in a stunning, ornate white building with cerulean blue domes and tall thin windows. Inside, they clearly understood that some of their visitors would be English, as they had provided information in English to let these people know what they could, and could not, touch. However, other than this, all of the exhibits were labelled in Kazakh and Russian, leaving us to work out Kazakhstan’s glorious history for ourselves from pictures.
The museum deserves particular mention because the emphasis they place on different topics seems to mirror wider feeling in the country. An entire floor is dedicated to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the incumbent president. The 74 year old dictator is the father of Kazakhstan, having been in charge since it was a Soviet state (25 years). Nazarbayev, jointly with Russia’s Putin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, was awarded the “Man of the year Award” in 2012. He is “an Ultimate Oligarch”, is a member of the Order of the Golden Eagle, the order of the Red Banner of Labour, and was awarded the Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George by the UK.
Nazarbayev has declared a ‘Holy War’ against corruption. He is the author of the prescient “Kazakhstan 2050” initiative which predicts Kazakhstan’s future (for example, that country’s aubergines will be twice as big, that average walking speed will be ‘quite quick’, that Russia and Kazakhstan’s socio-political relationship will be 4 degrees Celsius warmer) and he likes to ski, play with baby animals and to play curling in his spare time.
The other major exhibit of note is the interactive feature on oil and gas. The feature allows individuals to try “fracking” themselves, controlling a remote, active seam of fuel via webcam with a joystick. It includes an 18 minute “choose the next step” interactive video on a 3mx3m touch screen, and attendees are given a small pouch of oil to take away with them as a sample.
Later that day, Dom returned.
DAY 2 in Kyrgyzstan
Meanwhile, at a café somewhere in Bishkek, disappointedly slurping instant coffee (rather than the artisanal fairtrade organic Ethiopian blend he had hoped for) Dom became aware that his cry for help had been answered through the Mongol Rally Facebook group. Just Add Water, who had accompanied us through our damaging Turkmen saga, came to the rescue once more: they set up a meet that morning.
Notwithstanding, flaunting their arrangements, Dom caught them stopped at a set of traffic lights. Running up to the car with his arms waving, his face distorted in ecstasy, mouth wide open and emitting a glottal, undulating wail – “I’m not where I suppose to be” he said as he arrived at the window, in place of “hello”. They drove on. Wheezing, he caught them further on, “what gives?” he asked. “We thought you were a homeless man”. Caressing his matted beard and arranging his filthy shirt on his narrow frame, Dom shook his head in perplexity.
Dom rode with Buster of team “Geek and a Freak”, who was driving the legendary Fiat Panda 4×4. The inside of the car was brilliantly modified, with a dash cam suspended in a net of duct tape, oversize speakers and subwoofers, switches to manually operate the engine-cooling fan and the lights. The heater intermittently roasted our feet as we travelled: taking its hot air off the engine, it actually helped to stop the engine overheating.
The pair of cars made it to the border after Just Add Water were pulled over twice by police, firstly for running a set of lights and secondly for speeding. Munching fresh fruit we had obtained by offloading the last of our Kyrgyz Som, we were surrounded by friendly border-loiterers as we queued. Many borders accommodate such a contingent of individuals, who hang around with the intention of “helping” travellers. We met one such gentleman that day who spoke English, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Russian and Korean. Fluently. And his job was to sell hats to tourists. This is incredibly impressive, and we should not look down on anybody who falls foul of the wiles of such a person, even if the hats are obviously over-priced.
Later, travelling with him in a taxi away from the border, back towards Bishkek (just after the car had gone through the crossing) Sophie and Dom were headed to a nearby village to be sold some over-priced hats. We arrived at a village composed of freshly built houses with shiny new corrugated roofs. There, an old woman emerged clutching the package. The hand-off took place and we were on our way again, this time climbing into a Marshrutka to make the return trip. Pressed against a huddle of old ladies in the doorway of the vehicle, we felt a little like intruders.
When we got back to the border, the others had crossed through already. We were to experience the ruck for ourselves. The queue was a heaving mass of wrestling people, bowed over crates as large as large children (they could have contained children for all anyone knew). Reaching the other side, Dom was accompanied by a 6 year old child, who rose from hands and knees from between someone’s legs, pink and moist, with his arms in the air. “YES!” he shouted, slowly rotating in triumph “I WIN!” That was how Dom felt too. It was only then that Dom realised that there was a possibility that, following this exit stamp, he would be stuck in no-man’s-land, unable to return to Kazakhstan. He did not have time to wallow in the melodrama of the situation for too long, as the Kazakh border control was show-stoppingly efficient. No problems; homeward bound.
The journey to Almaty was notable for only two things. The first was Just Add Water being pulled over for a third time (such a liability) and the second was the topiary. Dom had somehow missed the irregular chainsaw hedge sculptures that lined the central reservation for miles and miles.
The two teams did not intend to linger in Almaty, so they stopped at the very north of the city at a Monster Truck garage (apparently the only place qualified to look at the huge springs that suspend the little Skoda Felicia). After a detour to get Vietnamese food (in line with Kazakh tradition, the Vietnamese restaurant sold one Kazakh dish and nothing else, which they half-reheated for us in a microwave), Dom thanked the teams and headed out on his own to get back.
It was rush hour. This meant the number of lanes of traffic doubled, that you could see the seams of the buses straining as more people levered themselves inside, that it was faster to jump from roof to roof than to be inside any of the cars. It was then that Dom resorted to the Metro. None of us had even really realised that Almaty had a metro. The journey cost Dom 80p, took him the entire length of the city, and did so in an empty, air-conditioned, scrupulously clean car. The stations were marble and lit tastefully. Everything was deserted. It was like travelling in a 4 star hotel.
Back in the hostel room, we murmured our hellos to one another and put an episode of ‘The Wire’ on.