Silk Road (7): Free-roaming camels and wild horses

We entered Kazakhstan twice. The first time when we crossed the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan, and the second time, after Uzbekistan. The fact that we do not need visa to enter helped substantially in organizing our trip that way (all the visas we had to get so far for the other countries have been single entry only).

The two entries were also totally different experiences. During the first, we literally got taken for a ride by a local, whom we met on the boat from Baku. During the second, we met some of the nicest people (thanks to a good friend of mine: Nurik, if you are reading – a whole lot of gratitude) who not only showed us Almaty from a local point of view but also helped us cross the border into China!

We did neither know how to get from the port of entry on the Caspian Sea to the nearest town, Atyrau, nor really how to go to the border of Uzbekistan from there (about 6h drive). We thought we were in luck when one of the drivers on the boat from Azerbaijan, Mohammed, offered to take us to Beyneu, one hour away from the border. He had been to Georgia where he had bought a bus and was driving it back to his home in Aktau.

By the time we managed to get through passport control, and after waiting for a few hours for Mohammed to pass through customs with his bus, it had already become 10pm. I had checked that there was a train from Beyneu to Nukus, Uzbekistan at 4 am, so I thought, “Perfect timing”.

The bus driver had already agreed to take an American solo traveller, Michael, and a few of the locals along. At the last barrier before exiting the border area, the officers, for some reason, did not let us through. Mohammed turned around and asked me if he could borrow $30 (he said he had no cash) equivalent in Tenge, the local currency, because he had forgotten to pay for some document. It was lucky that I had exchanged that much money as, normally, exchange rates at borders are the worst.

It turned out, that he did not have the license to drive this bus (I have no idea how he had driven it so far!). I don’t know what the money I gave him was for, or how they let us through but now we needed to find someone else to drive the bus once in Atyrau, which meant that we could not go to Beyneu immediately.

We picked up more locals on the way, one of whom was kind enough to direct us as there did not seem to be a proper road for probably something like 10-15 km.

A small diversion here. This was a brand new port, which had opened literally two weeks ago. The facilities were excellent. Nothing compared to what they were in Azerbaijan and more like any modern European port of entry.

We stopped at a petrol station and the driver asked each of the locals to contribute some money for him to fill up the tank. That’s when I started to get suspicious; but still, he was a devout Muslim – he wouldn’t be a cheat and a liar, would he?

We were in Atyrau by midnight. We stopped at a parking lot just outside of town where all the locals disembarked and we waited for two people, one of whom was the new driver, the other, a friend of Mohammed. There was a new problem: they needed to arrange insurance, and, of course, that could not be done in the middle of the night. So, we needed to find a place to sleep…and somewhere to exchange money to pay for it.

Mohammed’s friend managed to arrange a flat for $40 for the night for all of us (including Michael) and I got in his car with him to find some Tenge and pick up the keys. (Everyone else stayed in that parking lot to wait for us).

When I look at this whole experience in hindsight, it seems surreal. I had no idea who these people were, we had just arrived in a foreign country in the middle of the night, I had left my family on a deserted parking lot and embarked on a trip across town with a stranger looking for a flat to sleep in and a place where to exchange money!

This guy was huge, a former Kazakhstan bench weight lifting champion…and he turned out to be super nice. If I had any fears, they quickly disappeared once I got talking to him in the car (by the way, unlike the other former Soviet Republics we passed through, Kazakh people not only speak perfect Russian but are also happy to).

He obviously knew his way around town. We stopped first in a secluded alley, where the ‘exchange bureau’ was an iron door with a small opening in the middle where you handed your dollars and hoped you would get some Tenge back. Then we drove to a really dilapidated block of old Soviet-style flats where a lady handed us the keys (she insisted on keeping my passport for ‘deposit’ but eventually settled for 2,000 Tenge – about $5).

The bizarre did not finish there. We picked up the family and Michael from the parking lot and drove to a brand new, very modern, but half-built ‘skyscraper’ on the Caspian Sea waterfront, where, I think, no flats were inhabited. The fact that there was a guard at the door who looked at us worryingly and warned he would call the police confirmed my suspicion (he did not).

The following morning, we got on the bus again and we left for the border town. I began to wonder whether I would ever get our money back. It was not so much for the actual money but a question of trust. Moreover, we had run out of Tenge and I was still relying on the money we were owed.

At our first stop we needed to buy water and I asked Mohammed when he was planning to give us the money back. He laughed back at me and said something like, “You were not thinking you were getting a ride for free, were you!?” Of course we were! The bus was going empty in our direction anyhow, and he had never mentioned money. His reply was, “Sorry, I must have forgotten to tell you, I expect you to pay for taking you to Beyneu”.

The situation became hilarious when, half way, we stopped at another petrol station and he asked to ‘borrow’ more money under another pledge that he would give it back. We were shocked after our previous exchange. Did he really think that we would trust him again?

Eventually, we got dropped off at the Beyneu train station but with a sour taste in our mouth.

Incidentally, while this drama was going on in the bus, the scenery outside was a vast steppe (most of it, hundreds of meters below sea level) where camels and wild horses were roaming free.  The other thing I noticed was, once past the Caspian Sea, people start to look much more Asian. In any of the countries so far on our trip, I could have possibly passed as a local. No such chance here.

We arrived in Almaty on the train from Tashkent. Almaty was really special: the unusually cold (below freezing, snowing) weather was contrasted with the amazing warmth of the people we met there. Nurik, my friend from University, who is also originally from Almaty but lives in London, put us in touch with his friends, Max and Daniar.

Max waited for us at the Almatyi train station, helped us to exchange money and get a SIM card and eventually took us to our rented flat. He was pretty much ‘on call’ all the time we were there with suggestions what to do and where to eat. And of course he organized our trip to the Chinese border.

Daniar took us for lunch where we tried some Kazakh delicatessen, among which camel and horse milk. Afterwards, he showed us Medeu, the most popular ski resort in Central Asia, just half an hour drive from Central Almaty.

Otherwise, the weather was totally ‘uncooperative’: miserably cold. We had planned our trip with the idea to avoid the coming winter in Central Asia/China, both as it is less pleasant to travel from place to place, backpackers’ style, when it is cold, and for practical reasons (fewer things to carry).

Georgia and my son had already bought winter jackets in Uzbekistan, and now literally the first thing we did in Almaty was buy hats and gloves in a mall. Then we went to the ‘Green Bazaar’ and bought these special waterproof ‘socks’ which go on top of the normal socks (we brought only one pair of shoes with us on this journey, the special Vivo Bare Foot, which had served us extraordinarily well so far, but were no match for the slush and snow in Almaty). And then we bought camel-hair and bamboo socks to keep warm. Finally, we still wore pretty much every single piece of clothing we had brought with us – this is how big the shock to the system was the cold we encountered in Almaty!

The upside of the bad weather was that we spent some time in Almaty wonderful cafes (I was very happy that I was finally able to drink some proper coffee!), restaurants (we had amazing Korean – it turns out that Almaty has a large Korean diaspora stretching all the way to the 1930s – the first mass transfer of an entire nationality!) and, of course, Bania Arasan (the Arasan Baths). This latter was heaven for Georgia and my son; I and my daughter, on the other hand, were just fine.

Arasan Baths were finished only in 1982 and are a typical example of Soviet modernist architecture. Rumor is that they were built to compete with the oriental baths in Tashkent (we did not see the latter because they were demolished a few years ago). Inside, the baths are not only really exquisite – a blend of oriental and modernist style architecture and materials; but they are also quite practical – everything was designed with a specific task in mind. Men and women bathe separately but, apparently, the two sides are exactly symmetrical. The choices are Russian Bania, Finnish sauna and Turkish steam room with the temperature in each decreasing in that order (if you are a first timer, like me, you would not
be able to stay more than a minute in the Russian Bania – it is that hot!).

We had chosen the rental flat right next to both the Arasan Baths and the Panfilovets’ Park the other must-see attraction in Almaty. The park is named and dedicated to the 28 soldiers of an Almaty infantry unit who died fighting the Nazis outside Moscow. We had to visit it despite the extreme cold. It was definitely worth it as the memorial is really magnificent.

On our last day we left Almaty very early in the morning for our drive to the Chinese border. Max came to pick us up from the flat (he gave us a few of the city’s famous apples for the road!) and then one of his drivers took us to the border.

The scenery was very much as I remembered it on our first encounter
with Kazakhstan in the east: steppes with wild horses (did not see camels;
don’t know if it was because it was so cold).

The difference was that this time the land was covered with snow, and with the majestic Tien-Shan mountains in the distance, it looked like a scene from one of those Russian ‘skazkis’ (stories) I had read as a child.

The border! Again! It all started well. We got dropped off where the car could go no further, picked up by one of Max’s people and taken, like VIPs, to the Kazakh border control. The appearance of a family on a deserted border crossing so far had caused some commotion and excitement. Here, though, it caused also some suspicion.

That was probably caused by my son mentioning he was from Italy while handing his British passport to the border officer, and my Eastern European name (and looks). Not only, it took the border officers an usually long time to process our documents (especially the kids’), but also, after passing through, we were separately, and casually, asked few questions (to the kids, what is the name of their mother; to Georgia, what is her name and to confirm her husband was from Ukraine!?!). We couldn’t
figure out if it was pure curious chit-chat from a group of bored officers or
digging deeper into our identities, but we thought it amusing.

The actual problem was what happened after we finally cleared the Kazakh border control. We started walking towards the Chinese side, when we were stopped by a screaming loudspeaker and asked to return back: apparently, you are not allowed to simply walk in no man’s land to the Chinese border – you have to be ‘transported’ there.

The issue was that the only transportation is a public bus, that not only arrives from time to time (no one knows when) but you need Tenge to pay for it (the same rate as if you had picked it up from the departure point), and we had not kept any.

We found ourselves in a bind. What do we do? Do we take our chances and wait for the bus? What if it is full? Would the driver take dollars instead of Tenge? Do we go back in Kazakhstan and attempt to board that bus at its starting point?

We decided to wait. Eventually, the Kazakh border officers warmed up and we started talking (I think they were bored – no one passed through the three hours we waited for that bus!). One of them promised he would talk to the driver and make sure he would take us on board, and for free! It was indeed a relief when the bus eventually arrived with enough spaces for us to board and cross into China. However, not before waiting for an hour, in the bus, while the Chinese border was closed for lunch break!