Who wants to Live Forever?
Almaty, 15th July
The title of this blog is also the title of a Queen song that I was listening to on Ants’ I-pod during the last week in China (as well as scaring away the local wildlife by singing along). I find the song very emotive and it makes me want to disagree and say that I do want to live forever. I certainly haven’t always wanted to be immortal and there were a number of years when I wished that I could just fall asleep and never wake up.
This trip just makes me so happy to be alive; even the difficult and stressful days make me appreciate the gift of life. I am also very grateful that I am able to do this trip and very briefly get glimpses into how other people live in different environments and cultures. There is too much to see and do in this world that it is not possible to fit it into one lifetime. I would like to live many lives, on the one condition that all the people (and animals) that I love could share my experiences with me.
I have just finished a brilliant book called “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry. If you enjoy a beautifully written book and/or love India then this is a book for you. At the end of the book one of the main characters commits suicide and you are left with so many unanswered questions e.g. why did he do it? This is probably the main question that loved ones ask when someone close to them chooses to take their own life. Suicide may seem like a selfish choice, but suicidal people are not cowards and to judge someone’s actions when you don’t know their feelings is wrong. I have suffered from depression and I know the feeling when life seems so helpless that there are no apparent reasons to carry on living. I acutely remember feeling like a living corpse and I wasn’t able to experience any emotions e.g. I knew that I should love my family but I could not connect in any way with any positive emotions.
So, we have been in Almaty for a few days and leave tomorrow for Lake Balkash, a short 700km drive away. I am not really sure what I think of Almaty. It has many tree lined streets, but this does not necessarily make it a beautiful city. Everything is very expensive here e.g. 4 pounds for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and 2 pounds per hour to use the internet. Ants and I are suffering a reverse culture shock i.e. returning to a very westernized place after having been in Asia for so long. We intended to relax and rest a little, but instead our days have been filled with chores that need to be done e.g. press conference, registering passports, organizing third party insurance, getting TT serviced etc….. However, the people here are very friendly and we have met some really interesting characters this week.
On Tuesday evening we went out to supper with Mike (Reuters chief central Asia correspondent) and his wife Gemma, who have provided us with lots of useful information about Kazakhstan. We went out to an Italian restaurant and Mr Ant was lucky enough to have a gleaming white healthy maggot in her cauliflower salad- well, I am always trying to tell her that she needs more protein in her diet! On Wednesday we met up with a Kazakhstan feminist group, who do a brilliant job helping to promote equal rights for women here. Thursday was the most serious day of the trip to date. We took TT along to a press conference that had been organized by the British Embassy in Almaty. It took place at the headquarters of an organization called SATR, which work with children and young people with mental and physical disabilities. We had no idea what to expect and were thoroughly shocked to be filmed driving through the streets and then to be met by well over 10 journalists and a handful of TV crews. Microphones were thrust towards us as we each gave a short speech about our trip (Ants) and about Mind and mental health in England (me). We had to speak in very short sentences so that what we’d said could be translated into Russian. It was a pretty nerve wracking experience and I am so glad that Ants and I could share the load of public speaking- one of my least favourite hobbies. Still, it is good to think that we are getting the opportunity to speak about the problems associated with mental health.
Yesterday I took TT off to be serviced and she now has fresh oil (for high performance cars), a new oil filter, fuel filter and front brake pads. The mechanic was a real character who spoke very little English and so he and I communicated mainly through hand signals for three hours. He noticed that part of TT’s rear suspension was missing from one side and after a few minutes with a blow torch had fixed the part and reinserted it. I was shocked that the oil cost 20 quid, but I think it is oil designed for very high performance cars like Porsches. I gave him a packet of Chinese cigarettes to say thank you and asked how much I owed him. He refused to take any money from me and demonstrated yet again the generosity of the people we have met throughout our journey.
Today we drove to Shymbulak (ski resort just outside Almaty) with the Reuters
photographer, who took some photos of us and TT. The roads were incredibly steep and
TT struggled up the mountain in 2nd gear. We got a chair lift up the mountain and then walked back down, trying not to let our legs run away with us. I felt inspired to sing songs from “A Sound of Music” e.g. Climb Every Mountain sung by the nun to Maria when she visits the convent. As usual, plants started to wither, animals collapsed and children began to cry. I know exactly what Sam would have said, “Preeease, save my face”! TT did not enjoy the drive back down the mountain; she struggled to control her revs in 2nd gear and I had to use the breaks heavily; the smell of burning metal was not nice. On the drive down we saw 27 convoys of wedding cars traveling up the mountain. I have never seen so many white Mercs in my life. Apparently, the majority of people who get married in Almaty during the summer then get driven to the mountains to drink champagne and have photos taken.
Back on the road tomorrow and I am looking forward to it. We have been in one place
for 5 days and I am getting itchy feet. It is time to hit that tarmac and I hope it is smooth and beautiful and black.
17th July, Lake Balkash
Firstly, let me apologise to my mum, who I know doesn’t like us posting multiple blog
entries on the same day. It would be much better if we blogged regularly three or more times a week, but sometimes this just isn’t possible. Ants’ mum has said that she now realizes that Tuk to the Road is quite hard work and there is not much time for letting our hair down and relaxing- Ants’ mum, Fiona, is traveling with us for 2 weeks through Kazakhstan.
Lake Balkash is the fourth largest lake in Asia (I think) and we spent over 200km
yesterday driving around its western edge before finally arriving at Balkash city. After over 700km of driving north through the steppe I was thoroughly exhausted and feeling very flat.
As we drove out of Almaty yesterday morning I was just praying that we would manage
to leave the city without having an accident in TT. I initially thought the driving here was better than in China, but Almaty takes the prize for reckless motoring. The
combination of fast German cars and not paying proper attention to the road and the other road users results in multiple daily crashes. Every day we would either see an accident that had just occurred, see cars parked that had obviously been kissing over cars’ backsides or see the tell tale sign of broken glass on the road. It was the first time that I have really felt nervous driving TT. As we were nearing the city limits a man walked out onto a pedestrian crossing and just seemed to stop and stare at the traffic- perhaps he was staring at TT. Anyway, the first car braked quite suddenly at the pedestrian crossing, the Merc behind braked suddenly to avoid smashing into the first car, which left the Lada driving third smashing at about 30mph into the back of the Merc. We were very lucky that the Lada driver decided to rear end the Merc rather than swerve straight into us. My heart started pounding and I uttered a few expletives, as did Ants. We drove around the crash to see three rather butch men get out of the Merc and walk back towards the Lada driver- God, I hope he had insurance. Guess which car came off worse? The Merc lost 1-0 to the Lada, which only suffered a small dent to its front bumper.
After safely leaving Almaty we started on the very long drive north to Balkash. I had an image of the steppe in my head and the reality matched my imagination. Hundreds of kilometers of endless scrubby grassland to the east, west, north and south followed all the way to Balkash. I loved driving through barren landscapes in China, but the steppe did not stir up so many positive emotions. I didn’t dislike the drive, but it did feel a bit like driving in a computer game. Occasionally the monotony of the drive was broken up by eagles flying overhead or small herds of horses and camels grazing. Petrol stations were few and far between and a couple of times I was worried we might run out. We were flagged down a couple of times by Kazakh families who wanted to chat and take photos. The first family that stopped gave us 5 liters of petrol and refused any payment for it.
Another example of the Kazakh hospitality that has been bestowed upon us and TT. At
one of the petrol stations the petrol was pumped by hand. This involved two men turning a handle very fast to get the petrol from its underground tank into the vehicle. As usual, the petrol attendants wouldn’t listen to us asking them not to fully insert the nozzle into TT and this resulted in 17 liters for TT and 3 liters for the petrol forecourt. At least this time it wasn’t me that ended up covered in petrol.
Balkash is not a particularly attractive town and it is towered over by large industrial chimneys, which constantly belch out acidic smoke. Ants used her Russian skills to find us a hotel and we dragged our luggage up to the third floor. I had a room to myself and Ants shared with Fiona. Due to my unsociable snoring it is good for Ants to get few nights’ unbroken sleep while she can. The hotel rooms are more like a granny bedsit than a hotel room, with a small bed, table and chairs, some crockery, a large fridge and a bathroom- oh, and really horrible wall paper (no offense meant to grannies living in bedsits).
We had a rather uninspiring supper (goulash and potatoes), which tasted rather like
school dinners and then went to our respective bedrooms. I stayed up for a couple of
hours reading, writing and smoking- without Ants nagging me to get into bed and turn
out the light I start pottering around and stay up well past midnight- such a crazy girl.
For once, I slept like a baby and was woken up by Ants just before midday. We had
planned to explore the nicer parts of the lake today, but instead spent the afternoon
tending to TT and her newly acquired noise. For the last couple of hundred of kilometers yesterday she was making a grinding noise in her front end at slower speeds. Also, when you braked she veered to the right side of the road. As I opened up the tool box and wondered what to do a handsome young man came and introduced himself. His name was Max and he helped me to jack up TT and remove her caliper and brake pad. We thought that the brake was making her grind and drift. After removing both of these the wheel was spinning smoothly without any resistance. We went for a short drive, but TT was still grinding away, although she had stopped veering when the brakes were applied.
Max introduced us to a couple of mechanics who spent the next couple of hours trying to work out where the grinding noise was coming from. We changed the front caliper and brake pad and had another test drive- the grinding noise continued. Then, they tried to balance the wheels by removing a washer next to the tyre. This reduced the grinding but did not stop it completely. They concluded that the noise wasn’t causing any damage and would probably disappear. We just have to hope that they are right, because apparently there aren’t many (if any) motorcycle mechanics in Kazakhstan. We offered them payment but they refused any. God, the Kazakh people are generous and kind.
This evening we went out for a meal, which tasted like school dinners again. That is not a complaint, because I used to quite like school dinners. Max came along with his father and then a random journalist asked if he could interview us and take some photos. He worked for the local paper and the interview was translated from Kazakh to English and back again by Max, with Ants managing to answer some questions in Russian. The waitress had a full set of gold front teeth- very bling and I think a bit of a fashion statement here in Kazakhstan. Ants has decided that she would also like a gold tooth to fit in with the locals more and as a memento of Kazakhstan. Apparently there is a gold factory here, so perhaps we will find a dentist in the morning to give her a smile like Jaws (metal mouth in James Bond). After supper we drove further into town past a local nightclub, before stopping by the lake. The chimneys could be seen in the distance pumping out their noxious fumes. A couple were obviously hoping to have a romantic moment by the lake, but TT drove up and disturbed them. We got chatting to some of the locals and they asked if we were going to the local nightclub. Ants and I used our normal excuse of having to drive the next day and needing a good night’s sleep- both true, but
also we are becoming quite old and square and haven’t got the energy to drink lots of
vodka and dance- perhaps we would if I invoked the power of my Yi apron.
So far the best thing about Kazakhstan is the people. They are mostly incredibly friendlyand many have gone out of their way to help us. Kazakh people have told us that they are famed for their hospitality and I would have to agree. Tonight TT is tucked up in the guarded forecourt of Balkash police station. The police would like us to take them for a two hour drive tomorrow morning- 20 minutes is more likely. As Ants has said, a great photo opportunity. Anyway, bedtime now as it’s after 12.30am and I need to sleep well in my rather small bed to be full of beans for another long drive through the steppe.