Why Kazakhstan? 8 out of 10 people will ask you this question, when you tell them you are going to travel Kazakhstan. To get a response like “Oh great!” is a phenomenon. It is too bad that just so few people know about how Kazakhstan itself is phenomenal.
So why did I go? First of all, because there are no limits for me when it’s about traveling. Second, it sounded like it is going to be the biggest adventure of my life. Third, which should probably be first, my boyfriend back then lived there to spend his semester abroad, I went to visit him.
When thinking about Kazakhstan, the first thing that pops into most people’s mind is ‘Borat’. Unfortunately. The diversity that this country has to offer in respect of its culture, its landscape, its people. Its interesting history. All this is still buried in a gloom, soon to be enlightened.
That this country is still kind of a secret and some places are gloomy as hell makes your journey a roller coaster of emotions. Personally, for me, it was the most emotion-loaded journey ever. Now, when I think back, it still happens with a laughing and a crying eye, an aching and a jumping heart. As my ex boyfriend and I had to break up a few days after my arrival, due to several events that made it the only solution, I was left high and dry, thousands of kilometers away from home. After a few days of silence in Kazakhstan’s former capital, Almaty, we decided to cross the country from east to west, together, apart, broken-hearted. We were the best friends, and we tried to hang on to that part, keeping up the love we shared for traveling, food, landscapes, adventures and culture.
We got satisfied on all levels. Having a continental climate Kazakhstan offers you incredible colors. During the year with degrees ranging from -20 to +40 Celsius, you are able to freeze yourself to death and get sunburned in the desert. You can climb high mountains and watch beautiful, untouched turquoise lakes, you’re going to have to take a shit in a little wooden hut outside of houses, freezing your ass off, hoping you’re going to strike the hole. On the other side, you can wipe your ass clean in the big cities with the finest toilet paper, drinking great Vodka for no money, dine in the finest restaurants and dance in the fanciest clubs you could imagine, together with stunning ladies in elegant dresses and swamped businessmen. This is the roller coaster. You’re right in there. How many loops can you take??
The adventure started with Aralsk. Southwest of the country. 7.30am, we leave the train. The frost went right underneath all my clothes, I had no idea how we should spend the day, with all our heavy bags, the cold, and no plan. The next train would arrive at midnight. The place seemed dead, poor and desperate. It was the first time I ever saw such poverty. The first time I was ever looked at with these eyes. A glance of wonder, envy, depression. It seemed lonely, so lonely. It doesn’t only seem like this, it is Kazakhstan’s city with the highest rate of unemployment, caused by the desiccation of the Aral Sea taking away the city’s importance as a seaport. The main goal of our stop in Aralsk was the ship cemetery, a sight of depressing but unique character. A few abandoned boats in the desert where, earlier, there has been water. Unfortunately we had to find out very early that this was not an option today. Floods from the day before would make the ride too dangerous. The loudest and most active alive part of Aralsk would be its dogs. They build their own prides and they don’t give a shit about you. If you think they’re cute and poor and you want to give them your tender-hearted look – don’t. They might get very very angry. Just avoid looking at them, give them as much ignorance as possible. We spent our day walking around and stopping in three different cafés. Having three different decent meals. No toilets, nowhere. Hygiene was down to the lowest when we got back on track at midnight. Some wet tissues and a bit of water and soap helped to go threw the next 2 days, non stop in our train dormitory.
While the train tangles through an infinity of desert, rain and snow, wild horse and camel prides and makes us share our cabin with sometimes up to 8 persons, sometimes with 3 babies, sometimes with a whole sheep head (one of KZ’s specialities), everybody hearing we’re from Germany knew only one thing to say: “Hitler!”. Frustrated we began saying we’re from South America. I ask myself how separated from the rest of the world these people are. I asked myself if these kids and teens could grow up happily. I wonder how you can not dream of more.
My questions were mostly to be negated already in Aralsk, seeing young girls working at the restaurants, with a happy smile on their face, listening to the same damn music that our radios play up and down. School kids jumping in puddles, screaming “hellooo hellooo” and an overwhelming hospitality that didn’t smell at all like depression and loneliness.
2 days later, we get out in Aktau. It is warm, we can walk around in a jumper, the sun is shining, the blue sky meets the beautiful Caspian Sea. We discovered KZ’s steppes in an old Lada Jeep with two complete strangers that were the nicest guys ever. They brought us all the way through the desert to a huge mosque built inside a cliff, Shakpat Ata. One of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen. I had to go in without a headscarf, and our two Islam friends were open-minded enough to accept it and guide me through it anyways. We arrived at sunset, making the drive back in the dark even more adventurous than getting there. The Lada felt like being ready to fall to pieces anytime. It didn’t. We got back to Fort Shevchenko in one piece and got invited to dinner with the family. Wife and kids coming home and being super cute. Inviting us to their living room, taking pictures. The little girl taking my hand for the picture, my eyes equalizing an ocean again, a heartbeat that I can still feel right now, writing about it. All the houses in this little village besides Fort Shevchenko look exactly the same from the outside. White, small, turquoise roofs. Getting inside we were surprised by all the detail in decoration, a fully equipped kitchen, TV, the walls, the carpets, the kids sitting in front of the computer, playing games. Just like in our country.
We saw many families, young parents and men in the 4-person wagons in which we spent 6 nights in total. Most of them were reserved and shy, there was mostly no contact. The trains were often overloaded, with people spending more than 10 hours outside in the hallway. On the way back direction east, we spent all 2 days with the same 2 guys. They were on their way to Almaty, for medical treatment. We shared as much as language made possible, with chunks of English and Russian. We shared Vodka, delicious dried fish, and I got to eat my first Beshbarmak, Kazakhstan’s national dish. Flat, big noodles, cooked with lamb meat and carrots. We ate it, all 4, with our hands, they tell us one of the guys wife has cooked it, proudly.
Our last stop in a Nature Reserve in the very South of the country, close to Shymkent, we experience an incredible calmness, that leaves us exposed to our thoughts. We see the most beautiful starry sky, making you almost feel dizzy and so close to everything. We ride horseback through a beautiful scenery. We proudly touch horses that we thought were wild, but ended up finding out they always belong to someone. We watched ‘Kokpar’, KZ’s national game, played, of course, horseback, but instead of balls and rackets, this game is played with a dead sheep’s body and full physical application. They let us ride their horses and eat their food, drink their Vodka and Whiskey. At 2 in the afternoon.
It was perfect, it was different, it was the end of the world, nearly the end of my journey.
Back in Almaty I had only a few days before I had to face reality. I had to go back home to finally embrace my incredibly worried family. I had to come back home to take pictures off the wall and put them in a box. I had to go back to find the pitiful look in all my friends eyes, that I would always see, even if they try to hide it. I certainly didn’t want to go back home.
The last days I was staying with the friendliest person on earth, who I met on couchsurfing before. Thank you so much for being my friend. My last night should start with a wonderful dinner in a great restaurant, and everybody wanting to finish my stay big. We went to a club and I drowned my fear and sadness in Vodka. I woke up the next morning in a big bed with the Koran beside my head on the bed table, in a cute pajama that was full of vomit, an expensive carpet on the floor, that was full of vomit, and my throat making me feel like I must have been close to choking. Oops! If you think this is the worst part, it is not. It was 10am and I have missed my flight by 3 hours.
I came home a day late, carrying home my joy, my pain, my new friend. Embraced by my to tears relieved father. I came back home. And as sad as the circumstances of this journey were, it still left me enriched and I don’t regret a second. I invited family and friends over to cook Kazakh food, show my pictures and report my experiences.
“We are friends now!”, everybody we met needed to say. Every acquaintance seemed to find it very important to point this out. Yes we are. We are friends.
In Turkistan I took a picture of an old lady with her grandchildren. She mobilised them to pose for me, she screamed “Look, look, amerikanski photoapparat! Come come, we take a picture!” and after seeing it, she said to me: “Advertise Kazakhstan and Turkistan!
Keep your head up, ‘Kazakhstan 2030’