The Kindness of Strangers
Hotel Balkash, Balkash, Kazakhstan. July 17th, 2006
I know, I know, there’s been a serious absence of blogs recently. Apologies. Our ‘days off’ in Almaty were crammed with chores and our first day back on the road yesterday was a 750 km tukathon which left no time or energy for blogging.
Kazakhstan has been a revelation. Even more so than China it was a void in our imaginations filled only with Borat, oil and steppe. We had no idea what the reality of travel here would be like, and were convinced that we’d be forking out bribes every few kilometres. How wrong we were. Every day strangers have shown us astonishing kindness and hospitality, and every day we are left thinking how cold and inhospitable us Brits are.
Anyroad, I shall start at the beginning. As I mentioned briefly last week, Almaty is an expensive, westernized city. Having driven from Khorgos through rural villages where donkey carts far outnumbered cars, it was a surprise to suddenly be in Almaty with its plethora of German metal. Every second car there is a Mercedes, Audi, BMW, VW or Porsche. Every other second car is an ancient old Lada. Whilst there we learnt that a great proportion of these cars are driven in huge trucks from Europe, where crashes have rendered them undriveable under EU regulations. Here however no one cares -status before safety it seems.
Such a surfeit of speed makes the driving in Almaty LETHAL. Speed is at a maximum and spatial respect at a minimum. No journey through the city was completed without seeing at least two prangs, and most of the cars carried some sort of battle scars. On the last day there we were lucky to escape one of these, when a Lada careered straight into the back of a black Mercedes less than a metre away from us. The Mercedes came off much worse and as we tukked off, thanking our lucky stars that the Lada driver hadn’t taken evasive action into Tingers, we saw three large Russians emerge from the Merc and stride menacingly towards the quivering Lada driver. I didn’t fancy his chances.
The other notable thing about driving in Almaty is the ‘taxis’. On day one we noticed that everyone seemed to be hitchhiking, sticking their arms out by the side of the road and immediately being picked up by any passing car. So we decided to try it out. Sure enough, 30 seconds later, a wheezing old Lada pulled up, we negotiated a price, and off we went. Having been ripped off by several taxi drivers on our first day this became our preferred method of transport, and in our week there we all got picked up by people claiming to own the ‘oldest Lada in Almaty’. It’s such a good idea, people do it to make a bit of petrol money as they scoot around town. I might start trying it at home.
So many people in Almaty were so kind to us, I don’t know where to start. First up are Michael Steen and his wife Gemma. Whilst talking to my friend Adam about the trip back in February, he said, “Oh, my friend Mike lives in Almaty, you should get in touch with him”. Ever since then Mike has been the recipient of a number of emails from me and has obliged us with wealth of information about traveling here. So it was great to eventually meet him and Gemma, who works for the EU, and thank him for all his help. Mike has been Reuter’s senior correspondent here for 3 years and is a mine of information on ‘the Stans’. As Jo has already mentioned, our supper with them at ‘Mamma Mia’ was spiced up by the presence of a juicy maggot in my salad which I luckily spied before it was too late.
Next in our line of Almaty Angels is Catherine Inglehearn, the Deputy Ambassor here for the last three years. Catherine, like Mike, has dispensed a great deal of advice and support to us over the last few months, when I am sure she has far more important matters to deal with. With the help of her press officer, Yulia Kaufman, she arranged a press conference for us at SATR on Thursday. The idea to combine with SATR was inspired, since it made people realize that we are not just two dippy girls driving round the world in a toy car, but we’re trying to raise money and awareness for an important cause. The ensuing articles in Komsomolskaya Pravda (www.kp.kz), Liter (www.liter.kz) and The Kazakhstan Express all talked about Mind and why mental health is a global problem that we all need to be aware of. As for SATR (www.satr.kz), what a fantastic place. Its founder and matriarch Dr.Gulnur Khakimzhanova, deserves global acclaim for her work. It was a privilege to meet her and her team. Thank you to Catherine and Yulia for arranging the day, and also for the pasta and Wendsleydale!
Then there was Evgenia Salagdinova and the members of the Kazakhstan Feminist League (www.women.kz). Before I left, my Russian teacher Vanda (whom I’d been taught by through the excellent Toniks Languages (www.toniks.com), had suggested I contact a few of her contacts in Kazakhstan. I subsequently got several emails back from various members of Feminist League’s here, most notably from Evgenia, asking how they could help us ‘dear ladies’. So on Wednesday afternoon Jo and I found ourselves in a smoky room, eating olives and being interviewed by these lovely people. Evgenia is a delight and like me shares a passion for fairies and all things pointy eared. When she and her husband Alexander came to supper a few days later she told us how Tolkien is very popular here and that every weekend members of the Tolkien Fan Club dress up in medieval armour and run round the Tien Shan mountains acting out scenes from the Lord of the Rings. Classic. Even better, I now know all the Russian words for hobbit, elf, orc, fairy and pixy.
Our last day in Almaty was spent going into these very same mountains, where Shamil Zhumatov, the Reuters photographer, took some photos of us and TT. Shamil, a handsome, black eyed Tartar, has covered the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and was with the 4th US Marine Division when they captured Saddam. He was one of the few journalists to see inside Saddam’s hole. And here he was spending his Saturday photographing TT. Shymbulak, where we went, is the playground of Almaty, where they ski in winter and get married in summer. Judging by the 27 wedding corteges we saw on the way down, NO expense is spared. We wondered where they found enough white Mercs to feed such extravagant taste.
Betwixt our chores in Almaty we squeezed in a few touristic endeavours, the Zelyony (Green) Bazaar and the Arasan Baths. Apart from being a total rip off, the bazaar was interesting for its bizarre offerings of Shubat and Khymiz, fermented camel and horse milk. Both are Kazakh favourites and whilst we wrinkled up our noses at the alien taste Kazakhs queued up for pints of the stuff. As for the baths…for some peculiar reason they induced a panic attack the like of which I haven’t had since I used to suffer from them regularly a few years ago. Whilst large, naked babushkas watched in perplexity Jo had to tell me to breathe and lead me off to recover. Most odd.
So yesterday, after five days in leafy Almaty, we set off for Balkash, 750 km’s north up the M36. Since our notions of camping had been destroyed after hearing of the wolves that roam these grasslands, and with nothing but steppe wilderness between the two cities, we had no choice but to drive this far. The novelty of nothingness wore off after a while and the drive here went on and on and on and on and on……..Just a straight road, the flat steppe and the unbounded blue vault above. Even more so than the Gobi, this felt like a corner of the earth which civilization had forgotten about. Every 100 km’s or so we passed a crumbling village, where rusting hulls of cars languished and half destroyed houses stood. Occasionally a herd of camels or horses could be seen punctuating the horizon. And that was it.
At last, at 8.30 last night, we arrived in Balkash, which sits to the north of its eponymously named lake. The aquamarine of the lake stood in violent contrast to the filthy, industrial town that greeted us. Balkash is just as you would imagine a ramshackle Soviet era town to be; depressing apartment blocks, factories belching out toxic fumes, long abandoned parks. But having asked two gold-toothed Kazakh men where the nearest ‘gostiniza’ was, we found ourselves at the Hotel Balkash, a pleasant anomaly amidst such depressing surrounds. Since TT has got a mysterious mechanical issue which we’ve been spending all day investigating, we have found ourselves here for a second night. Tomorrow we head north again to Karanganda, famous for coal and gulags.
A final point, which we have found again and again in our short time here. Never have I come across such kind people. Whether it was the passers by who gave us free petrol from their jerry can yesterday, the taxi driver turned mechanic who refused to accept any money for tinkering with TT today or Maxat who has asked us to supper with his family tonight, the Kazkakh’s kindness is unbounded. It puts us to shame. As I wrote today in an article I am writing for the Mail on Sunday, this trip has shown me that human beings are essentially kind and that the world is a much safer place than we all imagine. I recommend that everyone should do a long distance trip in a pink tuk tuk. It really does reaffirm your faith in human nature.
Enough waffle from me… HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my darling, favouritest, big sis Zed, 33 today xxxxxxxxxxxx