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The Ladies of Shymkent

We woke up that next morning at the Ordabasy Hotel, feeling great about being in Kazakhstan. The sun was shining, our air conditioning unit was purring along, and we were just about to head down for a little complimentary breakfast.

Despite the fact that we had slept in until almost noon, the hotel restaurant was more than happy to serve us, nervously placing a modest breakfast of deep fried dough, covered in sour cream, in front of us. I can’t go as far as to say it was delicious, but it got the job done, sticking in our stomachs for hours and hours after we ate it. Thankfully, there was plenty of coffee.

We left the restaurant and grabbed the Speed TRs from where we’d locked them near the stairs. From there we poured out onto the streets of Shymkent, taking in the majesty of the Ordabassy Hotel in the sunlight. We were positioned perfectly, right in the center of town where there was a giant roundabout and a huge pyramid tower piercing the sky.

We spent a little while investigating the tower and the associated fountains.

And from there, just practiced the usual algorithm of choosing a direction and wheeling hard.

We crossed over the Shymkent rail station and proceeded on into the unknown. They say that Shymkent is really more of an Uzbek town, misplaced into Kazakhstan when the original lines had been drawn by Stalin’s ethnographers. That hypothesis was supported by the presence of the giant, Uzbek style melon and vegetables market that we stumbled upon.

The smell of Dynia was so strong as we rode past, that we had to stop. We lingered, inhaling the sweet mellow Dynia smell and chatting with some of the sellers, like this young man.

From there we wheeled way out to the edge of the farmland that surrounds Shymkent, and then back to the city. After we arrived in the city, we headed to the train station, where we went to purchase tickets. The lines were insane, and at the rate I was getting cut by hurried old women, I would have been better off traveling backward in time trying to get service.

So we headed outside and paid an extra $2.00 per ticket to have them booked through a private agency. With tickets in hand, we headed back into town and began bouncing between malls and coffee shops looking for working wifi. It was not easy thing to find by any means. Many businesses advertised it, but few of them had networks that actually worked. It was always the same excuses too. Come back tomorrow, it will be working. Our network admin is away this week. Internet is out in the whole city, it’s not our fault.

Eventually, we found a Turkish restaurant that had a network with the actual Internet behind it, and connected. It felt good to feast on the Internet at reasonable speeds. It was still nothing fast, maybe 10 kbps, but to anyone who’s ever gone from 2 kbps to 10kbps, feel free to chime in with what a pleasure it is.  The place also had probably the most ornate ice of the entire trip, formed into rosebuds.

We headed from there back to the Ordabassy, put on our pointy Uzbek shoes, and left just in time to meet the Ladies of Shymkent. Unfortunately, half way to the restaurant, we realized we’d forgotten our dictionaries and had to run back. Thus, we were 15 minutes late.  When we got there, the ladies were playing cards, already a few beers deep, and scolded us for being late. I guess this was not a culture where being “fashionably late” was encouraged.

Soon the whole crew arrived, though, and all was forgotten. We ordered a feast of Shashlik, vinegared onions, and bread. Then these ladies proceeded to take us on a fascinating journey through the grizzly underbelly of a Saturday night in Shymkent. Most interesting, apart from a plethora of very insightful questions about America and the west that they asked, was the ever-present danger of being killed by a Kazakh man. A drunk Kazakh, we have been told by many people (Americans, Uzbeks, and these women as well) is nothing to run afoul of… a drunk and jealous Kazakh was doubly bad. And ways to run afoul include: dancing alone, not talking to them, talking to them, cutting in line for the bathroom, not cutting in line for the bathroom, being incognito, being clandestine, and being obtrusive.  Accidentally bumping into someone was akin to signing one’s own own death warrant.

For instance, we would be dancing to insane Russian techno-rap-opera music, and when the ladies of Shymkent would need to visit the toilet, we would be told to sit at the table and wait for them, since dancing alone would surely bring violence.  In our visits to the men’s room, Scott and I would suddenly be surprised by a shouting match breaking out in front of us.  Our strategy was to press our backs up against the wall and look toward the moldy ceiling, lest one of the aggressors grab us by the shirt and scream at his opponent, “Is this guy with you?”

Wild Stuff.

The next morning, we had agreed to all meet once again so that they could send us off on our train to Almaty. And when we got back to our hotel to set our alarms, it hit us. We had strolled into a new time zone. Though it had been almost all northward travel, Kazakh time was an hour different than Uzbek time! We had been an hour and 15 minutes late, not just 15.

We were lucky they had put up with that kind of behavior.

Regardless, the next morning we met up with the Ladies of Shymkent, and bid them farewell.

A few even hung around to walk us to the train station.

We looked at our watches and it seemed we had just enough time to make it on foot, so we strolled back to the station with them, and folded up our bikes on the platform.

As we were trying to get onto the train, there was some issue with our ticket and our status as foreigners, but our two beautiful friends managed to talk the conductor down and we climbed on the train.

We waved goodbye one last time and relaxed into our bunks. I soon struck up a conversation with the young men traveling in the section next to us. They were all sergeants in the Kazakh army’s new sergeants program, and they were very interested in our trip and in telling me about how important the new sergeants program is. They were patient with my terrible Russian, but I am pained to report that despite much lecturing, all I can honestly say about the Kazakh new sergeants program is that it is very important, possibly the only thing that can save the broken Kazakh military system.

Anyone with more knowledge is heartily encouraged to share in the comments.

While Scott headed over to investigate the on-train samovar, I was called by the conductor into his private office.

In there, he pointed out to me the problem what had caused the mild uproar outside on the platform. It seems that through some fat fingering on the part of the bookers of our tickets, we had actually purchased tickets leaving from the station after Shymkent to Almaty instead of tickets originating in Shymkent proper.

He explained that while there was no ticketing conflict, this was a big problem, and that I could solve it by paying him about $5.00 right there and then. Sensing foul play and not wanting to pay an unnecessary bribe, I began my first triumphant weaseling out of a bribe in Russian, hopefully the first of many. I agreed to pay him the difference in ticket price, but demanded that he produce some evidence as to the price of the two tickets. We continued to go back and forth, he saying that there was no up-to-date price list on the train, and me suggesting that we compare the difference between our ticket price and that of one of the sergeants. Eventually, in desperation, he just asked “are you going to pay me money or not.”

I said, “Maybe not.” And he told me to get out of his office.

Feeling excellent, I returned to find Scott to have also bonded with the sergeants. They had given him a gift of some bread, and later took him out on a mission to buy chickens  and horse meat sausages from people selling them on the station platforms of the various cities we rolled through.

The chicken was great. The bed was comfortable. The people of Kazakhstan were proving to be monumentally welcoming. This country was on the fast track to an AsiaWheeling seal of approval.


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