Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Road to the Evaporated Sea at the End of the World

Travels in Southern Kazakhstan by Nicola
To view the complete set of photographs accompanying this post, CLICK HERE.

(This forms a sister post to “Festive Fun and Frolics” by Ben S,
available here)

Working as a TEFL teacher has its perks. The long holidays and disposable income mean that exciting journeys await the adventurous traveller. Having slaved away at our 21-hour-a-week jobs in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Ben Scott and I eagerly awaited the Christmas break. And where better to spend it than exploring Kazakhstan, home of Borat and ‘Black Russian in a tin’ cocktails. What could be more festive?

The first challenge for the would-be visitor is acquiring a visa. This process involves at least two trips to the Kazakh embassy, usually conveniently during working hours, and the production of a letter of invitation. No letter? No problem, just write a personal statement on the provided A4 copier paper. Something along the lines of ‘Kazakhstan is a world-famous country, fascinating culture, I love manti, etc.’ should do it. Probably best not to mention Borat here.

Once you have your visa, it’s onward to the border. Travelling to Kazakhstan, like almost everywhere in the Former Soviet Union, means a mixture of shared taxis and mashrutkas (minibuses). Firstly, it is necessary to locate a car which is going your way. Usually you’ll be surrounded by jostling men in leather hats, who will try to hustle you into their ancient Ladas, or if you’re lucky, 1980’s Mercs. Do not get into the car until you have negotiated the price down to an acceptable level, usually a factor of 10 will do the trick.

At the border, you will stand outside a tin shed in the rain for an indeterminate period before being called inside by the border guards. They will proceed to do one of three things:
1. Wave you through in a disinterested manner.
2. Grill you for an age before waving you through in a disinterested manner.
3. Grill you for an age, and then demand money in order to wave you through. If you’re female, they might demand a telephone number in lieu of cash. When this happened to me (crossing from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan), I provided them with the number of my male, Kyrgyz friend. Unfortunately, they never did call.

You will then be asked to fill out a customs declaration. If you’re lucky, this will be in Russian, giving you a fighting chance of understanding it. Otherwise (and almost certainly if you’re stupid enough to try to board a flight from Almaty airport at any point during your travels) it’ll be in Kazakh. Try to find a friendly, older person to adopt you and guide you through the customs procedure: this is normal in the FSU. Alternatively, you can usually track down some under-employed student who wants to try out their English on you in the hope of a visa recommendation.

On the other side of the border, the same rigmarole of men in leather caps, soviet-era deathtrap vehicles, and blatant extortion will be repeated until you find transport for the next leg of your journey. From the border, we headed by mashrutka to Taraz, where we just had time to change some money at the only open bureau in town, take a brief glance at the completely deserted and unremarkable main street, and then argue our way into another shared taxi heading towards Turkestan.

By this time, it was getting late, so we were quite glad to hunker down in the comparative comfort of the car (if I remember correctly, a formerly German-owned Ford Mondeo; which had come to Central Asia to end its life after failing “Das MOT,” no doubt). We piqued the interest of our fellow passengers; two guys in leather jackets, the younger of whom was working on his spiv moustache. “Why are you in Kazakhstan? Where do you live? You live in BISHKEK? What do you do there? Are you married? Do you have babies? Why not?!” etc.

Some time in to the journey, we passed through a desolate hamlet which could be charitably called a suburb of Turkestan. Our car began to slow, and pulled up outside a small shop/restaurant of the sort which dot Central Asian highways. The older of our travelling companions said something about cigarettes, which I took to mean a smoking break, as the shack in question was securely boarded up for the night. All three Kazakhs got out of the car and headed towards the rear of the shop. Time passed. What could have been the light from a candle appeared around the doorframe, or it could have been my sleep-deprived and over-stimulated imagination playing tricks.

Finally, without a word, the men reappeared and got back into the car. We drove off. After a while, the older man started to talk to us about jobs; explaining that they were ‘businessmen,’ and was going to Turkestan for ‘business’. We thought best to leave it at that.

Arriving in Turkestan, the driver asked us where we were staying. As we hadn’t arranged any accommodation in advance, we asked him to recommend somewhere. He drove us to what looked like an office block, but which turned out to be the newest hotel in town, and one of the better places I stayed at during my time in Central Asia. The older passenger told us to stay in the car, and disappeared into the hotel lobby. Reappearing, he assured us that we would pay local rate. Slightly fearfully, we thanked him, before lugging our bags up to our room.

As it transpired, we did pay the local rate, and the hotel turned out to be the perfect base for exploring the town of Turkestan. This small town in Southern Kazakhstan would be utterly unremarkable, were it not for the huge Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, which dominates the skyline. Built by Timur (Tamerlane) over the grave of a revered Sufi mystic, it’s one of the only Timurid monuments in Central Asia still functioning as a place of pilgrimage – according to local custom, three visits here is equivalent to undertaking the Hajj. It also fails to attract the busloads of European tourists that flock to Uzbekistan’s more well-known madrassas and mausoleums, meaning that the only other visitors were a handful of local pilgrims and two very out-of-place-looking camels slowly making their way across the snowy fields.

After visiting the mausoleum, we headed into town in search of food. In the town centre was a bazaar, selling the usual selection of pickled vegetables, plastic rubbish from China and thick woollen socks hand-knitted by Kazakh grandmothers. Buried in this smelly, icy maze was a tiny shack which purported to be a restaurant. The young lady who owned the place was clearly bemused to have it patronised by foreigners in the dead of winter, but led us through to a spartan, unheated room decorated with a huge laminated picture of a Chinese feast, complete with exotic fruit, intricately carved vegetables, and steaming piles of dumplings. We asked what was on the menu. “Lagman” (boiled noodle soup).
After our bowls of hot lagman, we headed across town to change some more money and buy tickets for the train north to Aralsk. We were able to get sleeper berths on the train leaving that evening, in platskart (third class), which in the FSU resembles a dormitory on wheels. We were the centre of attention on the train; men asked us if we knew their relatives who were working in England, women shared their pickled salads with us, and babushkas constantly tried to sell us things. Figuring it was likely to get very cold; I bought a pair of fur-lined leather booties.

The train chugged slowly on, making its laborious 16 hour way to Aralsk. Small stations came and went; with huddled figures hefting vast carriers of god knows what though the gloom. The landscape was flat and white for as far as the eye could see. This part of Kazakhstan is certainly not the most scenic of places.
By the time we arrived in Aralsk, it was early morning, and still dark. We jumped off the high side of the train into the snow, and crossed the tracks to the small station building. After some subdued haggling, we caught a taxi to the only hotel in town, a Soviet-era block next to the old harbour, with tiny, unheated and uninhabited rooms. We seemed to be the only guests, and had the distinct impression that it had been that way for some time. It was Christmas Day.

(Please see Ben Scott’s post “
Festive Fun and Frolics” for an account of our time in Aralsk)

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