One thing not to mention to Kazak patriot is of course the thing that put Kazakshtan on the map for the majority of the rest of the world- Borat. Despite how wrong the movie was in many ways (i.e. four year old boys driving cars and smoking), Borat was kinda on the right track when he sung the lyrics “Kazakhstan greatest country in the world”.
Ok, so its not the greatest country in the world- well who am I to say what is and what isn’t anyway, but in my books it certainly is a destination I would love to come back and visit.
The city Almaty (meaning town of Apples) is nestled under the shadow of the mountains bordering Kyrgyzstan. The city centre is an oasis. It has all the main conveniences including cushy cafes, shopping malls and cool little trendy bars. It charms you immediately with the tree lined streets where on every second block of the city there is a public park where you can happily will away your day people watching or staring at the fountains. And because I was fortunately there during the apple season, it meant I could stroll under the shade of the apple trees and pick some off whenever I was feeling a little peckish.
It’s one of the places that when the occasional foreign tourist stumbles in they are immediately head over heels for the place and soon their original two day trip to the city has turned into a 2 weeks without them realizing.
I was fortunate enough to stay on a local’s couch where they were possibly some of the most hospitable people I have ever met. I was even lucky enough to be invited to their Mother’s 62nd Birthday party in the beautiful mountains bordering Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan with plenty of apples, laughs and drinking.
And so after not nearly enough time spent in Almaty it was time to move on and make some steps towards Russia, as thanks to the consulate in Hong Kong my Russian visa had already started and only had two weeks to go before the date I had to leave the country.
"There's nothing out there but desert and weird people, why do you want to go there?"
Once again this was a classic case of Hannah looks at a map, points to a place on the map and finds a way to get there. I changed my plans from travelling directly north of Almaty and going to Moscow and St Petersburg to avoid the winter and decided to chase the remaining sun in this area of the world.
So I decided to draw a line through the west of Kazakhstan into the Russian Northern Caucuses and then south into Georgia. Easy as pie. Sun here we come.
It was only whilst explaining my fantasy journey my kind Kazakh friends. And after a quick little Google search I realised why.
“DO NOT TRAVEL WARNING” “HIGHLY DANGEROUS”
I soon realised I hadn’t only chosen one of the more “boring” travel routes but one of the more dangerous too. And after checking the border crossing details into Georgia from Russia, my research showed half of the information saying the border was open and the other half saying it was closed.
Feeling optimistic (and ignorant) I decided that only half the people knew what they were talking about. But of course being a sensible young female traveller who knows absolutely no Russian, I knew I would be fine.
I was reassured that I had made the right decision especially as when I spoke to the locals about my route they egged me on with enthusiasm and encouraging words like;
“There’s nothing out there but desert and weird people.”
“You’re travelling there, alone!?”
All shaking their heads. Approvingly, of course.
And as quickly as I could get the Tenge (Kazakh currency) out of the ATM two freshly printed Cyrillic tickets were in my hand, locking me into a 4 day journey on two different trains into the Kazakh wilderness.
Saying farewell to my lovely Kazkah friends I hoped on the long train ride not knowing what was awaiting me at the other end of the tracks
It’s the much less glorified Trans Siberian train of Kazakhstan. And although it may lack Lake Baikal and Moscow as the end destination, it still has the community train feeling of its rivals. All playing cards, sharing food and wondering how this foreigner got so lost and ended up alone on a train to nowhere.
Luckily I was fortunate enough to have the only guy in the carriage who could speak English in the bed next to me. For those that couldn’t speak English my Russian phrase book around was certainly helpful. And yet I can’t help thinking thank god this isn’t a china train. I feel lucky that I’m not crammed on a hard seat with a hundred other people for 50 hours straight!
The trains got a rhythm as it bounces around with everyone trying to waste away the time. Just when you feel the train is getting somewhere, it makes a stop for 20 minutes in remote little towns along the way, bringing with it smells from the ladies selling the best Kazakh cuisine on the platform. Deep fried dumplings, hot bread, cookies, whole chickens, vodka, cigarettes and more. As the train stops intermittently, some sad goodbyes and promises are made to keep in touch as my so newly made friends are then replaced with new faces, all with the same question: “Why are you here?”
Stepping off the train in Aytrau after a long 50 hour journey, still smelling and possibly glistening from baking in the train as it passed through the bare surroundings. I distinctly remember stepping off the train into the streets lined with glistening departments stores and high class clothing chains thinking “God Lord, there’ a city here!”
I was pleasantly surprised to find any form of civilization in this little town in the middle of the desert. When looking at a map, it literally appears to be in the middle of nowhere, so naturally I expected something like the Wild West. Some Kazakh Malboro man, clad with a mean looking moustache, tobacco spit splatters marking his territory around his feet and probably not so warm to foreigners. But instead I had reached almost like a Las Vegas of Kazakhstan (without the casinos, wedding chapels, dancers, celebrities and tourists).
It was as if I had privately discovered life on another planet. Like the desert there was a definite harshness about this city. The large retail outlets, the dusty streets, the lack of trees and colour.
It is a city that literally pops out of nowhere. It used to be part of the Caspian Sea but once receded it has become part of a huge mining town, equipped with all the comforts a foreign expat could need; Gloria Jeans, designer clothing and more American brands on the shelves of the supermarket than I have ever seen in my life!
It was filled with beautiful things and beautiful people, all that money could buy. It was interesting to watch these high heeled women trying to walk daintily in a pencil thin skirt and imagine them here 30 years ago trying to hold their grace on the harsh desert sand.
Standing on the main street you are surrounded by buildings that have just “popped” up. Huge banks, shopping malls, hotels built for a king (or mining executives) things built to help make people living or travelling here forget that they are in Kazakhstan, all to give them all the comforts and more than their old everyday lives.
Glistening in the distance is a reminder that you’re not in America as the huge mosque stands tall and proud surrounded by an equally impressive tall, spiked fence. As you look beyond sticking out like the Disneyland castle there’s the Christian Church ornate and as obnoxious as any other buildings around it.
Through couch surfing I had organised to meet with a lovely local who was kind enough to skip work to show me around, surprised that someone had actually made it to her side of the world. She was of North Korean descendent, which I found very interesting. But as I found out she was not the only one. During the Soviet times huge amounts of North Koreans were bought across on the trains to Kazakhstan to be kept together and closely watched, and well they never returned. So it was really interesting to visit a Korean restaurant where they serve bimbimbap almost identical to that I was having regularly in South Korea, even though they have never returned.
After a stuffing my stomach silly and enjoying being able to stretch out my legs, it was back to the train station and onto another long journey. Destination: Russia.
I was glad to be back in the clean regulated world of the train, and I fell into its gentle routines with gratitude and relish. But by clean I mean the train was clean. I had not showered since leaving Almaty. But hey, this is the “outback” of Kazakhstan. My must was enveloped by the accumulating stench of the other poor souls that were stacked like sardines in the carriage with me. No matter how many wet wipes I could use to savour my sanity, it was no use. The harsh desert sun immediately warmed the carriage at 7am every morning without fail, leaving you to wake up hot, sticky and smelly before even lifting a finger.
The compartments were decked out with 9 beds in each little corridor, with about 10 corridors in each carriage. And I haven’t completely lost all ability of doing simple math calculations after over a year on holiday it means there are 90 body odour producing beings baking in this metal surrounded heat chamber.
Despite all of this I was still feeling very lucky having my own luxurious and spacious bed compared to the conditions riding on the “hard seat” in China and India. And at least there weren’t bits of chicken feet littered around the carriages, like I experienced on the trains in China.
You will away your time watching the endless unfurling scenery pass your window or “chat” (play charades) with your neighbour, sharing food and smiles. There is something wonderfully lulling about being stuck for a long spell on a train.
No matter how I spaced my intervals to take some quick snaps of the outside scenery, the pictures still remained the same. One single wire dipping and rising like the motion of water, tat once used to be there before the Aral Sea dried up, joined by metal poles protruding from the ground. Where these wires were carrying their electricity to, I wondered.
The vast expense of the flat horizon that seemed to go on and on and on, only to be interrupted by a shrub or two standing out green against its harsh orange sanded desert background.
The occasional wild horse or camel would come into view where my kindly neighbour would shout “loshat!” And it is still one of the only Russian words I have learnt today, essential for many conversations meaning “Horse!”
Only when there was a curve in the train track could you peer out the window and gaze at the other carriages following so diligently behind like the segments of a caterpillar. Then they disappear leaving you to once again feel isolated in the huge Kazakh desert.
The border crossing was as easy as any others I had done before. My passport was stamped from the comfort of my own bed. You pass your passport, they look at it and stamp it. No questions asked, no waiting in pushy lines, all from the comfort of your own bed! Luxury!
“Why couldn’t every border crossing be as easy as this?” I thought as I dozed back to sleep dreaming of what would await me in Astrakhan.
/pictures and videos are to be added to this blog, as soon as I reach good internet. Current internet on St Helena (a remote island in the Atlantic Ocean) is slow and costly, sorry/