Until the 20th century Kazakhstan was the domain of nomadic horseback animal herders. Except for the south Silk Road that is. And that’s the road we’re going to take. Most overlanders these days choose to drive or cycle or walk to Azerbaijan, then ferry across the Caspian to Aktau. We avoid ferries if we can – the costs and mess make no logical sense in our case, so we cross a little border, lost at the fringes of Volga Delta. As the last time, the border control is not fast, but courteous and friendly. Being still in the delta, during the dreaded fly season, comes with evident unwanted benefits. While we are waiting for our passports to be registered, Olea, the nice policewoman at the counter, takes pity on our fly-infested faces and offers Ana some mysterious white dust. Rub this on the skin, she says. Soon Ana is sporting a dubious white powder around her nose. For a split second the exchange stirs a bit of emotion among the audience! But soon it is revealed that the powder is not a controlled substance. It is just vanilla sugar!
The road across the Delta allows us to glimpse how the villagers are coping with the seasonal flooding. Their cattle and horses do enjoy the cooling effect of these ephemeric pools, as the summer has been already heating up since weeks ago. To cross certain areas we need to take temporary bridges, which in fact over time – due to poverty and laziness and possibly the poor administration – have become permanent.
Immediately the sights broadcast the news of a dramatically different place. The road is a mess: a layer of melted asphalt interrupted by patchwork of sand, gravel and debris. Our fellow drivers are well equipped. They zoom by, at full throttle, in brand new 4x4s or soviet cars. It’s everyone for themselves here, and we go with the flow. So do the camels, layered in their furry coats.
Soon though, we need to stop, and refuel. All four people and machines. The gas station looks like an UFO in this hazy, dusty, sandy nowhere. It looks and functions just like an ordinary gas station in Europe, except for two small details: there’s no toilet (one must use the revolting WC of the chaikhana across the road, where we’ll end up for lunch) and if we want to buy the fuel, first we need to go to the counter, say how many litres, pay, come back at the pump, hand the guy the receipt (if there’s any, if not, just shout the numbers in Russian my friend) and finally watch as the precious liquid flows into our tanks. This is the blood of this huge country, which has brought upon it – just in any other part of the world – both blessing and doom. Kazakhstan is struggling to cope with the many effects of industrial pollution. Scattered throughout the country there are radioactive or toxic chemical sites, leftovers of former defense industries and test ranges. The soil has been depleted of nutrients from overuse of agricultural chemicals, salination from poor infrastructure and wasteful irrigation practices. The two main rivers that once flowed into the Aral Sea have long been diverted for irrigation of the dreaded cotton fields. The kazakh steppe is in effect drying up at an astonishing rate. The brittle grasses that gave such a charming background to our bushcamps are actually not so charming after all: they are chuck full of chemical pesticides and natural salts. In time the wind picks up these harmful substances and blows them into noxious dust storms, further polluting the Caspian Sea. Well, enough with the environmental propaganda, let’s sample some proper central asian cuisine. In our case, plov and chai.
As we chill by a tasty plate of food, we meet a couple (a Polish girl and an Irish guy) who are taking part in one of these “challenges” (“charitable rallies” they call them) that have become the rage among Europe’s youth. I guess the “gap year” is so yesterday! Well, they’re gonna zoom though the same deserted veld like us. Which appears flat, arid, lifeless.
Unless one takes one of the side trails that winds thru, and up to the shores of the Caspian Sea, where semi-wild horses and people enjoy a bit of tranquility.
While I’m exploring the area in search for a decent camping spot, Ana is waiting for the sun to set. Already the quality of the light has changed: eye-burning, even in the early hours of the morning, and surreally orange at dusk. Well, we longed for it, didn’t we? The desert – spanning this huge continent up to the tundra.
But this is no Sahara. The colours, the flora and fauna, everything is different. The thistles have delicate flowers that die at the touch of the sun, only to resurrect by night. The sand bears the evidence of mysterious creatures that crawl in its underbelly: hairy spiders the size of my palm, huge dragonflies, and of course plenty of dung beetles.
It does not deter us from enjoying a sunny breakfast.
The second day deepens our sentiment of the strange. We barely pass any settlement. Villages (or towns?) display of mix of mud brick huts and ultra-new residences that employ almost the same unsustainable materials that we use. The cemeteries though, placed in the immediate vicinity of the villages, are quite interesting. The size and decoration of the tombs suggest a strong desire to invest and hope in the afterlife.
The ethnic Kazakhs are actually a curious a mix of Turkic and Mongol tribes, who migrated into the region in the 13th century. They are one of the last nations to have lost their nomadic lifestyle, having been rarely united in the past as a single people. The name of the Kazakhs comes from a Turkic word meaning free rider, adventurer or outlaw (nomadic). Their territory was eventually conquered in the 18th century by Russia, and later assimilated to the Soviet Union. In 1920’s Stalin began denomadization, but kazakhs slaughtered their herds and died of famine. Those who resisted collectivisation were deported and population fell by two million in a decade. During the controversial agricultural “Virgin Lands” program of the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet citizens (mostly Russians, but also some other deported nationalities) were encouraged to relocate to Kazakhstan’s northern pastures. This dramatic influx of immigrants further added to the already confusing ethnic cocktail. Soon non-ethnics started to outnumber natives, and only after the independence, in the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, the ethnic Kazakhs were repatriated. Since then, Kazakhstan has been struggling to manage Islamic revivalism (the country is more than 70 percent Muslim) and to develop a cohesive national identity.
As for the vibe, we can report that the people are an instant coup de foudre: outgoing, daring, jovial. Stopping in chaikhanas for a refreshment and a chat is a joy! In this particular spot for example, Gulshat is eager to try the bike. Salamat dashes in the back to put on a better shirt so she’ll look good in the pics. She practically asks us to photograph her super cute son, Sultan (2 yrs) and Amina (4), the daughter. The women actually seem to like me: I guess I’m kind of exotic around here. Rahmat!
Suddenly the decrepit road evolves into the smoothest tarmac one can desire. With the ubiquitous camels on the horizon, that is.
This is a country of vast natural resources (it belongs to top 5 nations for oil reserves) after all! We are flying on the highway of this unknown Kazakhstan, stopping only to tea-up and sleep. Some are a hit and some are, unavoidably, a miss. We sleep on the bottom of a dried-out seasonal lake. We have developed by now a habit of carrying extra water for showering at the tent. So we can both fully enjoy a short jog and a relaxing evening in our quiet little spot in the steppe.
The tea drinking business is another matter. Surprisingly in a fancy tea-house lost in the desert, everything is impersonal, but cheap (decor, service, flavour).
While in this charming tea-house with the most horrendous toilet I’ve even seen but one of the best cup of teas ever brewed, the lady rips us off with a disarming smile: 500 tenge for three servings, go figure! Her sun, Ilsgur (8), looks a bit spaced out. It might be difficult to grow up in this isolated place, while his dad is working across the border in Uzbekistan.
In most places though there is no reason to ask for prices or a menu. We simply sit down and enjoy a teapot full of strong, dark, aromatic liquid.
As I am thinking about the next cup of tea, I see Ana breaking violently. What the…? I’m out of gas, she says. You were doing 90! You gotta pay more attention, I scold her. She turns the reserve on, and takes off. And soon stops again. Now, you gotta be kidding me… but I notice the reason for this impromptu stop. And it makes me smile. You see, Perizat and Aidos are getting married :)
We are outside the town of Beyneu. For some reason, the bride and groom and their closest friends have gathered here, out of all venues, to enjoy a glass of vodka, while the most talented guy is serenading. Come on, join us! They wave vigorously, and frankly, it’s not a call to dismiss. Well, you’ve been looking forward to attend a wedding, haven’t you? I tell Ana, and she nods joyfully. Kuanish, the brother of the bride, sporting a generous set of golden teeth and a strong vodka breath, invites us to toast for the newlyweds. Thankfully we are handed glasses of grape juice! Perizat is demure in her white dress and heavy jewellery, but the rest of the ladies are far from shy. Soon we start dancing, clapping and chanting.
Now we go at the house to feast. You must come, da? Well, how can we say no to this? You ride in front, next to our cars, ok? It’s going to be beautiful, says Kuanish, who is the director of the convoy of party-goers. He drives in front, while the other 9 cars follow, with us in tow. The driving is chaotic: drifts, horning, the lot! Before entering town Kuanish stops again: you need to horn also, and drive parallel to me, it’s nice like that. So we drive all over town, horning like mad men, passing the red light and waving at the police, to let everyone know that the wedding is here, starring exotic guests from abroad, on bikes! At the compound there’s a huge yurt where tables of goodies have been laid. As we are called to ride into the garden, a DJ shouts over the microphone something about the Romanian bikers. That’s us! And so the party ensues: bride dances, candy and gifts are thrown in the air for good luck, songs are sang, amazing food, hugs and warm handshakes are shared.
Over the next hours we manage to discuss about the aspects of life in Romania versus Kazakhstan: prices for an apartment, wages, taxes for small businesses and stuff like that. In all this meantime, women keep bringing finger-licking dishes to our table: plov, mutton, soup, dried fruits, salads, cakes and candy. The men are busy getting us drunk. Soon we realise that we we don’t leave soon, we risk getting smashed: we manage to split after enough vodka to keep us going. Or so we hope…
While the alcohol starts settling in our system, we need to navigate around town for fuel. Or should I say around camels?
The next 80 kilometres to the border aren’t tarred. It’s not easy.
We both have dusts in every pore and every nasty place you can imagine. And the passing trucks do us no favor.
But I guess the vodka helps. The booze feeds our confidence that we can still make it to the Uzbek border today, and we roll through clouds of dusts and gravel. Rumour has it that this is how the roads will be from now on. Well, I guess there’s only one way to find out…
Vizualizaţi 2013 – Kazakhstan pe o hartă mai mare