Central Asia Recap Part One: Kazakhstan


My Friends,
   Due to the unreliable internets access I have been made to endure as of late, I havent been the prolific bloggeur I normally am.  Let me perhaps rectify this by filling in some of the blanks of the last couple of weeks. 
   I left the balmy beach weather of Israel on 16 December.  This was a significant departure because it was my final good-bye to my beloved Mediterranean.  More than simply a sea to me, I had swam in its warm waters, interacted with its peoples and used its coastline as a navigational aid for months.  I treasured my last Mediterranean sunset walking on the beach in Tel Aviv and even got a lil’ misty.
   My plane from Israel took me first to Kiev, Ukraine for a 9-hour layover.  I had planned for this and I used the extended downtime to make a foray into the former Soviet-bloc city.  Luckily, by entering the country instead of simply waiting in the designated layover area I copped some pretty new bling (read: stamps) for my passport.  The bus ride to Kiev took awhile but I actually like the city a lot.  It was very beautiful and the people seemed really friendly.  The food and drinks were cheap and although wet, it was not too cold.  My only complaint was how cozy and warm all the little shops seemed: the Christmas spirit was in the air and watching happy couples gazing longingly into each others eyes over hot cocoa/coffee by a warm fire really drove home the point of my loneliness over the holidays.  It was far easier to stick to the cold air of the outdoors than torture myself by going into these shops and getting a closer look at what I was missing out on.  I have resolved that I will one day go back to Kiev with my woman during the Christmas season and enjoy it like I was not able to during this first visit.
   Went back to the airport, waited some and got on my plane for the four-hour flight to Astana, Kazakhstan.  I had heard from a chick in my hostel in Israel that Kazakhstan was like -20C and I joked that I was going to freeze my balls off although I was secretly concerned.  But having already submitted my passport for the visa I could do little with this knowledge except steel my nerves against the expected onslaught of cold weather.  I began to think to myself that -20C wasnt that cold.  After all, I have experienced that in Canada and survived.  If nothing else, the cold weather would be a boon; people would be more likely to take pity on this hitch-hiker and pick him up.  In retrospect, such imaginings and self-reassurances seem sheer folly, but you’d be surprised what you can convince yourself of when you need to.  So, “prepared” as I was for -20C, I was dismayed beyond words when, as we pulled into Astana airport at 530am, the captain said the weather was -27C.  I hadnt planned for this, and this extra 7 degrees of coldness may as well  have been an extra 50 degrees of coldness.  I took a glance around the airplane and saw everyone pulling on their bubblegooses (puffy coats) and furs, while all I had was a Von Dutch zip-up sweater and a wind-breaker.  What the F had I gotten myself into?
   Still, maybe -27C wasnt as cold as it was cracked up to be.  I hadnt experienced it since last winter so I really shouldnt be so quick to judge, as my faculties of memory might have been flawed.  They were not.  Just getting off the plane and feeling the slightest touch of outside air chilled me to the bone.  I realized this simply wouldn’t do.  I thought long and hard about my options after clearing customs and waiting in the front entrance of the airport, shivering in spite of myself every time the door opened and someone entered.  I resolved that I would get the fudge out of the city by means other than hitch-hiking and to the former capital of Almaty, as it was at least a manageable -7C or so.  So I cabbed it to the Astana train station (of course the cabby had to be parked at the other end of the parking lot) and got a ticket for that night’s train to Almaty.  Having to wait 15 hours in the Astana train station was a trying experience: the multitudinous police and security officers present were so unaccustomed to a Westerner that they took me aside and detained me while they looked through my passport and joked about my shoes, my manner of dress and prolly my facial hair.  This particular incident happened in the morning but I had passport checks all day and was continually harrassed about where I sat, lying on my foam mat while waiting and charging my ipod.  It got to the point that I started being a little bit of a prick and whenever they would make eye contact with me I would hold up my passport and ticket and insist they check it while cursing at them audibly (they didnt understand Englirsh anyway). 
   It was so bad that my only reprieve from this intrusiveness was the dreaded cold; I made the arduous 60 second trek to a nearby cafe, almost died in the process, and spent an hour or two there drinking coffee and keeping warm.  I noticed the sun (which had gingerly risen around 10 am) during the walk to this cafe.  It sat so low on the southern horizon even at “high noon” that I swore I had entered the Arctic circle (and who knows, maybe I had; I really didnt do much research on Kazakhstan before deciding to go there as foreknowledge and preparation often preclude wacky adventures).  I dont want to overstate the cold weather but you must understand my situation: My upper body and legs were perhaps warm enough to survive for protracted periods of time in the cold (not comfortably mind you), but my footwear of choice is Vibram Five Fingers KSO Treks.  These are a barefoot equivalent shoe which mimic the barefoot very well, particularly in their almost complete absence of resilience to cold weather.  There was only 6mm of rubber between me and the snow and my toes were separated which made them chill that much faster.  I literally may as well have been walking out there barefoot.
   Whatever though, I survived the day and made it to the train (although the walk on the platform was another trying experience).  The compartment I was in had two young guys and two old ladies on it who became essentially my Kazakh aunts, insisting that I eat with them and drink tea with them.  It was a very pleasant train ride considering noone spoke English.  Also, I finally got warm.  The train itself bears some mention because it was incredibly old-looking and it seemed to me that it was very possibly a Soviet relic which I thought was kinda cool.
   We arrived in Almaty the next night and one of my aunties insisted on taking me to the international bus station so I could buy a ticket to Urumqi, China.  Almaty was warmer but still not as warm as I would have liked, and I was forced to walk outside for over half an hour, poorly-equipped.  We got me set up for a bus leaving the following night and I stayed in the bus-station dorm.  It was a fun night as I got invited to drink with some Kazakh taxi drivers taking a “vodka break” in the kitchen of my hotel (I didn’t write that last bit as a joke, but its actually kinda funny).  We crushed their whole bottle (smoothe stuff) then I figured “fuck it”, and busted out my bottle of cheap scotch from the Kiev duty-free.  We crushed that too and smoked my pipe and I woke up feeling like shit the next morning.  My wake-up was even worse because it was conducted by the Kazakh cleaning lady who was yelling at me to get out in a voice that sounded like a cross between a cat being strangled and a little girl being raped.  I had to kill the day in Almaty waiting for my night-time bus departure.  I spent a good three hours internetting across from the station.  It was during this time that I learned from FB friends that Kazakhstan had declared a state of emergency in response to unruly labourers in the Southwest who were protesting the government for something (higher wages, better hours, more jobs, etc…).  We had passed near this region en route to Almaty while I was sleeping on the train two nights before.  Leave it to me to sleep through a conflict. 
   Around 10 pm on my third day in Kazakhstan I boarded my overnight bus to Urumqi, China.  It was awesome because I was expecting to be sitting up for the whole 24+ hour ride but it was a sleeper bus stocked with thick fleecy blankets.  I dwelt on the cleanliness of the blankets for less than an instant and got to the business of sleep real quick.  My awakening the next morning was a rude one: my busmates telling me to get my passport out because we were getting boarded by the Kazakh miltary.  Fortunately this was no random passport check; it was the first (of several) passport checks to go through the border to China.  The border crossing took about two hours as all the bus companies seemed not to co-ordinate their schedules, so there was a surfeit of people trying to get through the border, and these people had seemingly not grasped the concept of “a line:” I literally had to occupy my whole border lane to prevent little Asians from pushing past me.  In this instance my backpack came in handy for occupying space as it is roughly the size of a small Asian.
   Much more pleasant than exiting Kazakhstan was entering China.  There was a 5km or so “no mans land” between the two countries which was traversed only by my bus apparently.  What this meant in practice was that all of those people from the various buses that came through all piled onto my bus and I almost didnt even get a spot.  Plus this old man who was mad that he didnt get on the bus before me kept pushing me from behind.  It took all of my patience not to clock the Kazakh fuck.  But like I said, entering China was fine: in fact because I was so conspicuous in the crowd of Asians, the Chinese authorities pushed me to the front of the line which happened to be right on front of the pushiest fucks from the bus ride over, much to their Kazakh chagrin.  It was a small victory but a victory nonetheless.  The process was delayed a little by passport control who kept looking back and forth between me and my passport pic.  He even called a friend over to get his opinion on if it was really me.  That was really the only hiccup. 
   Clearing customs was a lot like clearing customs in Egypt though; as soon as I was free of security the hustlers and hucksters wanted a piece of me.  Many were holding wads of Chinese money to change but I had read about rampant counterfeiting in China and opted not to change my money with these disreputable seeming characters.  We had a quick lunch China-side and were on our way.  It wasn’t until after midnight that we reached Urumqi, and the bus saw fit to drop us off at a hotel instead of the bus station.  This was problematic because Urumqi was not much warmer than Almaty and I really wanted to be on my way further south to the city of Chengdu in the Sichuan province.  In the next few hours I had one of my weirdest experiences thus far, but alas, that’s a story for the sequel.
Stay Thirsty
-Andre Guantanamo 
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