We showed our passports. Lots of men in huge, official hats looked at them and waved us through. The guard eased the creaking gates open for us, hollow hinges rang off the concrete blocks of the surrounding fortress of the Kazakhstan border. Everything would be better now. Or would it?
Several kilometers down the road, a white blur streaked by. “Are the Russians testing missiles out here?” I asked. Nothing is white or fast in China (anymore). No, this was a white Audi, same as the ubiquitous black Audis of China, only three times as fast and carrying two men with long pointy noses and mirrored sunglasses. Over the next five days, we would see hundreds of variously colored Audis flying back and forth on some urgent mission to the border. Hmmm.
We had been used to having Zippy under guard (well, sleeping guard) overnight in the hotel lobby through China and on our first night in Kazakhstan, I was worried when I heard excited chatter in the middle of the night. At 2:30 a.m., I decided to check on the bike. Earlier in the day, the proprietress had shown us with repeated demonstrations, that our door lock may not unlock completely if we didn’t turn the key just so. You may be thinking to yourself as you read this that there is no way on Earth you would stay on the third story in a room with iron bars on the windows and a door that may get stuck/locked shut. But you didn’t see this door. Bob and I discussed this ahead of time and agreed that if a fire broke out, we could very easily break this door down. However, at 2:30, there was no fire, I just wanted to see our transportation and next best buddy and I couldn’t get the door unlocked. Shortly, I heard the voice or our hostess on the other side coaching me in Russian. I felt her hand twisting the knob each time as I tried in vain to imitate the wrist motion she’d shown us. After several minutes we were free and she was very understanding that I just needed some reassurance in a foreign country.
There were some new language problems in this new country. My grimy Mandarin book had to be put aside and I now fumbled with the Central Asia phrasebook, flipping between Uyghur, Kazak and Russian. It seemed each time I ventured a guess as to the appropriate language to use, I guessed wrong. It also took us a while to realize that people were mistakenly guessing us for Russian. A few times it even seemed like they were trying to trick us into speaking Russian, as though they didn’t believe we were American. All they got were blank looks, I couldn’t even master ‘I don’t understand’ yet.
First Kazakhstan bush camp.
Our first bush camp of this tour. A canyon descends out of Kokpek where we stopped to ask two shepherds if we could camp down the road. They shook their heads as if to mean no, but given the time of day, the fact that we’re tired, that there is no hotel for 30 more kilometers, we took the head shake to mean: “No we don’t use those yurts,” or “No we’re not camping here tonight, we’re going home,” or “No, there is no one camping around here that we know of,” or at least “No, you can’t set up your tent by my sheep, you might scare them.” We did understand that they were offering a ride on their horse, I suppose just to have a good laugh, or maybe they wanted to try out the bike. We skipped the horse ride and descended further down canyon, out of sight and scouted a perfect bush camp. The steep canyon walls and lack of much vegetation meant we would have to get into a side canyon. A four wheel drive road led straight up to a bench where someone had obviously camped before. We had to wait until the sun was low and there was no traffic, then barrel with the fully loaded bike up the steep hill. We ran until I feared Bob’s lungs would explode from an asthma attack. It was such a beautiful spot that we didn’t bother with the tent. The stars were spectacular but they still couldn’t keep us awake and we slept soundly. Until sparrow-fart, or first light when the birds started to chatter. A blast broke the peace and echoed up the canyon. We had seen shotgun shells around the campsite. Was someone hunting? It was still too dark. Did they fire a shot just to see if we would jump? I imagined some angry local up on a ridgeline upset that we found his private spot. After an interminably long silence, I finally stopped shaking and decided Bob was right, it was probably just a truck backfiring as it descended the canyon.
Check out the hand signs: are American gang symbols universal?
Our lonely ride is sometimes punctuated by brief visits with truck drivers, kiosk owners or van loads of travelers ready for a stretch and a look at the curious bicycle. One truck driver wanted his two teenage children to see the bike and maybe get a grasp of the bigger picture. The father seemed to want to convey to the boy and girl that dreams were important and worth pursuing. At least that’s what I read into his gestures. His life was driving clothing and goods on the Almaty-Urumchi route. He wanted more for his children and was especially proud that his daughter would soon be attending university.
One day, a whole family that appeared to be Tajik stopped and guessed at Zippy’s weight. We all laughed and Bob gave his age, required information here. It always impresses people. One of the women had to stay in the truck, we think it was to keep her foot on the brake. Another day, at a magasin (a closet-sized shop selling cookies, candy and soda), three teenage boys giggled at us trying Kazak and at themselves trying English. One of the boys tried to give us a book of family poetry, all in Cyrillic type. We felt terrible but we couldn’t possibly have accepted something that looked like a family heirloom. Instead he gave us a tape of Kazak music. We signed the backs of the photos we gave them and they signed our Tyvek map jackets. Each of these exchanges is frustratingly limited. Some of the gestures work, but other times we feel we should look like we understand when we really don’t. Maybe they feel the same. On our other tours, we’ve always had friends or family to visit, or strangers to make friends with. Sadly, we haven’t learned much about the lives of the people here.
Pecked To Death By Ducks In Almaty
We are in Almaty, Kazakhstan being pecked to death by ducks (Claire remembered a book with that title). The first thing we discovered in Almaty, besides that the drivers are aggressive, and not nearly as talented as the Chinese, was that we had missed our five day deadline for checking in with Immigration Police. I envisioned them preparing one of the abandoned Russian gulags, just for two Americans; revenge for the cold war. It took two days to go through the process of letting them know we made it here from the border, and they seem not to have noticed that we were late. We’ll see when we leave the country, “Zere is ze probleeem with zu passpooort. E weeel musst pay moneee. Juusst puut eet miyee pockeet as zu leeeve.” (And I thought I was joking!)
Next we mailed a CD backup of photos and journals to Steve Wilson, who was doing the web page; it took two hours to mail two little packages. And it wasn’t a language problem, it took all the Russians just as long to do even less. Also, each day we have had to beg the hotel we picked to give us another day; they usually do around noon; nothing I like better than hanging around in a hotel lobby listening to Russian, between bouts of groveling and begging, when we have lots of other ducks all over the city waiting to get in their pecks.
We are having fascinatingly humorous, and disturbing forward-travel challenges. For example, one reliable source says it can take six weeks to get a visa to Turkmenistan, effectively cutting off that means of escape from Almaty. Then there was the massacre in Uzbekistan, while we were on the road from China. I know we should not let a little thing like 700 or so people being shot down not far from our original route bother us, but somehow it makes us a little uncomfortable; that and the refugees streaming over borders to get away from Uzbekistan, and the 2000 escaped criminals, or dissidents, depending on who you listen to, no doubt wandering the countryside looking for errant bush camping cyclists. Each day comes word of one border being closed, then re-opened, closed again…
Then there is the train to the ferry to Baku, Azerbaijan: It is apparently a three day wood seat, open windows kind of train, of which you will remember beat us up severely in a short five hour ride to Beijing; the train has no baggage car, and no room for a big, long tandem. We would be looking at pedaling a couple of thousand kilometers of 40C plus desert, apparently with headwinds, if our trip from China to here is any guide. Nyet. Then the ferry runs either every five days or every 15 days, depending on who you talk to. Are we seeing a pattern here? Our Kazakhstan visa runs out soon; to get another one (extensions are illegal) we must go to Kyrgyzstan and apply again, with no promise they will give us a second one so soon, thus stranding us in Kyrgyzstan, where the refugees and criminals are gathering for a convention of hating all large world powers, and the silly tandem cyclists they send out as good-will ambassadors. Are we seeing a pattern here? How about a train through Uzbekistan from Alamaty? That sounds safe. There are no connecting trains of any kind, concrete block seat, or otherwise. We are getting squeezed into the corner of staying a long time in Bishkek (did I mention that new elections have been set for early July and there have been recent demonstrations?) waiting for visas, and trying to gage the exact day the five, or fifteen, day ferry will arrive. (Actually there are two ships; they run together for safety; it seems one sank recently and they want a spare nearby to pick up any potential survivors.) There is more, but I don’t want to depress, or bore, you with our ongoing disasters. Oh hell, why not. Read on:
We did save up many of our questions for Marat, our guide and driver for a tour of the Tamgaly petroglyphs. Half Russian, half Kazak, Marat was able to give some perspective on the finer points that separate the ethnicities here. Only Kazaks hold official positions, the language of commerce seems to be Russian and the Uyghurs, if they want to run a restaurant, have to be squeaky clean because they are the only ones likely to be inspected. Our impressions have been different from what we learned from Marat. Because we still can’t tell one from another and heard mostly Russian, we thought that Russians still held the reins. Kazakhs being independent, have the best jobs but may still be heavily influenced.
Three hundred years after the death of Genghis Khan, the silk road trade route collapsed for all the independent states taking payment on the goods passing through. We’re beginning to see a pattern here. The same continues for travelers today. Each border crossing means money, time and potential trouble.
Excuse Me… Where Is The…
Yes, I did say where is the toilet in Russian. We were directed to the Arasan Baths, a large complex of Turkish style baths. Surely, they would have toilets somewhere that we could use. We walked in the entry and were directed to go downstairs for tickets. Downstairs, we were directed back upstairs. This went on two more times with a kind intermediary with limited English trying to help. She couldn’t believe we didn’t want a bath, which is very understandable as we had already built up a good sweat halfway through the day. And someday, we might go there for a bath, but today, we just wanted an … ahem. We never did succeed in finding a toilet nearby. Good thing Almaty is a very green city.