Kazakhstan, Part 1 – Arrival

The adventure begins Autumn 2015. The lady and I are looking for a holiday. We’re going to Norway. It’s a hiking trip in a National Park. A lovely summer has been steadily giving way to the dullness of the onset of the East German winter. She’s been working hard all through the summer, saving time and money for a big trip. I recently quit my office job and am itching for a chance to make good use of my newfound flexibility after 2 years of brutal shift work. We’d planned our bus routes and made a list where we’d stay, what we’d need to buy to supply ourselves while hiking. But we left things a little too late, and when we added up all the costs it became clear that we couldn’t afford it. Despair. Regret. Plan B. We’ll go to Greece instead. Flights to a couple of sunny cities were more affordable, but I’d been before and it wasn’t quite hitting the spot for a more rugged adventure in strange land. This was scaling down our plans, closer, more familiar (both of us are from the Mediterranean, I’d been before). We shook down Skyscanner to see if there was anything else that fit our budget and time frame and maybe take us a little further away. Boom. Return flights to Almaty, Kazakhstan. A good fucking deal. And just like that, the adventure was blown wide open again. We were going much further than we bargained for.

We were going to Kazakhstan, but, like most first worlders, we knew next nothing about it. This was the typical ignorance that Sascha Baron Cohen famously relied upon for this character Borat. Despite being a good vehicle for exposing peoples prejudices about foreigners in Britain and the United States, Borat sadly reveals nothing about the actual country (aside from the fact that they really didn’t appreciate being made fun of). I had a vague idea of the vast size of the place, thanks to growing up in a household where a world map was always prominently displayed. A good friend is married to a Kazakh lady and has visited her family there. From him I gathered that the people were hard drinkers, proud of their nomadic traditions (or at least the notion of them, his wife works in finance) and history as part of the Mongol Khanate, and lovers of horses. We had a crash-course in some useful Russian words and phrases from friends in Berlin. Simon Reeve’s Meet the Stans and Wikitravel helped fill in the gaps. We were all set.

We were flying from Berlin and making a change as Borispol Airport in Kiev, then going on to Almaty. On the way out of Berlin, a strapping young security guard takes me aside and runs a finger along the waistband of my trousers, ‘to check if I have anything explosive in there’. I bite my tongue, suppressing the obvious pornographic retort that would be appropriate but widely ill-advised in these circumstances. This was the most amusing and least scary of a few airport security run-ins during this trip, and if you’d like to buy a script for a gay erotic film based on this true story, let’s talk.

Borispol Airport is a dull looking strip, with some luxury goods shops somewhat over-staffed by glamorous and bored-looking saleswomen. Fortunately it’s not busy, and the restaurant doesn’t mind us camping out on our table for a few hours, nursing our lemonade and soup, while we wait for our connecting flight. As we go through the gate, the gate attendant is incredulous- ‘Why are you going to Kazakhstan? Are you sure? Don’t you need a Visa?’ This is another small harbinger of things to come – people will keep thinking we’re complete weirdos just for choosing to go there. There’s certainly not many fellow travellers who are not Central Asian, and our lack of business suits marks us as apart from the other westerners.

The flight is long but uneventful, but with surprisingly decent food. We arrive at the small airport in Almaty close to 4 in the morning. Entering the country, we are subjected to some scrutiny, a photo opportunity, and made to fill out a ‘visitors card’. If you lose your visitors card, you’re in the country illegally and face prosecution. It’s printed on a flimsy thin piece of paper smaller than my palm that looks like it might disintegrate in a light drizzle. My idle fingers develop a paranoid habit of feeling for it in my pocket while walking in the city, trekking through the desert, hiking up a mountain, wherever. We’d been advised to get to our guesthouse in the city by hitching a ride on the main road. Online guides specifically warn against taking a taxi. But a young taxi driver spotted us changing money in the arrivals lounge, and proceeded to hound us as we exited the airport and trekked along the road for a while, looking for a passing car, but we couldn’t shake this determined salesman. He wasn’t going to let us get away, and I realised that he was either going to close the deal or I was going to introduce myself fist-first to this new country, a place where I don’t speak the language or have any friends to call if things don’t go so well. Weary from the long flights and not willing to kick off my time in Kazakhstan in such an inauspicious manner, I haggled down to half price (down from 5,000 Tenge!) and we got in the cab. The driver hardly spoke a word of English but we showed him a printed out the hostel address and we were off. Not long after we got going, he stopped by a deserted stretch of road, said ‘5 minutes’ and just left, walked off into the dark. Which was disconcerting, to say the least. I started thinking of what to do if he were to return with 5 heavy guys in tow. Was there anything worth grabbing from the suitcase before we made a run for it? In which direction?

But our driver returned alone, and he turned out to be the directionally-challenged one, as he took us on a repeating, vaguely circular tour of the neighbourhood, stopping to ask late-night streetcleaners and security guard where our destination was. Still, we get there, and when he demands once more his original proposed fare of 5000 Tenge, we both have a good laugh. Much later, on the way back, I’m happy to learn from a different taxi driver that 2500 was still good pay for the trip.

The hostel had left their door unlocked for us and we chilled out in the lobby in the small hours of the morning while we waited for the staff to come in. Another guest came in to potter around the kitchen and we were overjoyed to find out that he was German, and some communication was possible. It’s embarassing for me that as an auslander in Berlin I’m very nervous about my spoken German and still get around speaking English quite a lot in daily life, but after many hours of non-communication it feels great to find someone you can speak to, even in your third or fourth language. Around midday we got the keys to our room, and crashed out on the bed. Coming up in part 2, the city of Almaty.

Next in this series:

Part 2- Almaty

Part 3- Charyn

Part 4- Hiking and horses

Part 5-Altyn Emel

Part 6- Homecoming

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~ by theserpentscircle on March 15, 2016.

One Response to “Kazakhstan, Part 1 – Arrival”

  1. […] Part 1 – Arrival […]

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