KAZAKHSTAN #2 - CAUGHT BY THE WINTER
I cross out of Kyrgyzstan and back into Kazakhstan for the second time this month, taking full advantage of the country's convenient 15 day visa free period. I have hardly gone on for half an hour before I am invited into the home of a local family for lunch and few pots of tea. Not for the first time, I wish I had more time to stay and chat, to work on my Russian and to learn more about the kind and generous people everywhere around me. I am invited to stay the night but it is still early and there is bad weather forecast for the following day so I regretfully decline. Winter is closing in on Central Asia and I don't have the gear to deal with it so I have no choice but to press on and hope to make it back to Europe before it gets too cold.
Making progress is difficult in Kazakhstan however, as the people are so friendly that every time I stop I am ushered quickly into a comfortable house for bread and tea. I realise that I am going to have to start declining offers if I am going to make it out in time. Towards the end of the day a westerly headwind picks up and I camp in a small wood beside a stream, lighting a fire and toasting some flatbread for dinner. By morning the wind is stronger and within a few hours of getting on the road it has started raining. I fight into the wind as the temperature drops and the rain gets stronger, turning gradually to sleet and then snow. By the time I reach the town of Taraz in the evening a full-on blizzard is in progress and I am freezing and soaked to the bone.
I received an invite earlier in the day to stay with a Kazakh truck driver at his home in Taraz once I arrived, so I waste no time in cycling to the address I have been given and meeting up with Cartpyv at his house. I quickly change out of my wet clothes and head out for some drinks with my host and his friends. Kazakh vodka is wonderful stuff, nothing at all like the rubbish we call vodka in the west. The way it is usually drunk in Central Asia is to follow a shot with a bite of food, on this occasion some smoked fish with bread. Cartpyv and his fellow drivers are celebrating coming home after more than three weeks on the road so there are toasts aplenty and before long we are all pleasantly drunk.
We head back to the house where Cartpyv's wife has prepared us a meal of delicious fresh bread with an enormous pan of greasy fried rice with chunks of fatty mutton. The two young boys fight over the choicer bits of meat as we eat sitting cross legged on a Persian carpet with the dishes on a low table. After eating I offer to help clearing the dishes but the lady of the house immediately orders me to sit back down. Traditional gender roles are still very much in evidence in this part of the world, and as everywhere in the Islamic world, guests are treated with incredible hospitality. Cartpyv's wife is warm but firm in her refusal to allow me to get my hands dirty.
After dinner Cartpyv takes me down to his car where we share a couple of beers and talk with the aid of the Google translate app on my phone. In what seems like a story told the world over, Cartpyv talks sadly of how broken his country is and how the government is running its people into the ground. Working full time as a long distance truck driver, and only able to be at home with his family for a few days out of every month, he makes only around £8000 per year, just barely enough to support his family. And although Kazakhstan may be cheaper to live in than England, it is still probably the most expensive country in Central Asia, and £8000 a year is still a pittance.
Hearing of Cartpyv's struggles makes me pensive and makes my ride feel self obsessed and even conceited. I may only be spending around £5 per day, but to have enough money to travel, and no responsibilities to tie me down, makes me feel like a spoiled brat. Why is it that I can go back home any time and walk straight into a job earning two or even three times as much as this man, just because I was born in a different country? Why is it that an accident of birth should determine so much of how a life will play out? We in the west are so oblivious to the realities and hardships of so much of the rest of the world, we have no idea just how good we have it. Over the coming months I will think often of my friend in Taraz, and of the incredible privilege I take for granted as the child of a wealthy country like England. I do not think we should feel guilty for that privilege, for we did not choose it. But I do think we should be aware of it, be grateful for it and above all make the most of it to live life to the fullest, as it allows us to. Not to do so spits in the face of the billions of people who do not have the opportunities we do. Most of us have no idea how lucky we really are.
The blizzard continues all night and in the morning I wade through almost a metre of snow to get to the small outhouse toilet at the back of the garden. I am worried about the road west, but by the time I’ve had breakfast and waved a very grateful farewell to Cartpyv and his family, the snowploughs have already been out and the roads are clear. As I ride out of town I have to chuckle as I think of how even a brief smattering of snow is enough to grind England to a halt, yet here a metre of it is simply business as usual. We really are hopeless.
Two and a half cold but beautiful days of riding, and two brutally cold nights in the tent, take me through Shymkent and then south to the much anticipated border with Uzbekistan. Getting through seems to take forever, partly because there are hundreds of people jostling to cross over and partly because of the predictable ineptitude of the border guards, who seem to delight in going as slowly as they possibly can. My passport is pored over for a good fifteen minutes as a bored looking official inspects all of the strange stamps and visas contained within. My bags are passed through security scanners and I struggle to fill out a long form written only in Cyrillic. With the assistance of a helpful man from Samarkand I eventually get it done, having to declare exactly how much money I am bringing into the country – I am told sternly that I will not be permitted to leave with more than I came in.
Finally I am stamped through, fight my way past the crowds and push my bike out of the gates and into Uzbekistan. Home to the glories of the silk road and the twelfth country of my trip, this is one I have been looking forward to for a very long time.