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A Long Ride Through the Steppe

We began the day by attempting to head out to that mojito branded coffee shop that we’d indulged in the day before, but we were sorely disappointed to find it closed. Now we were in a bewildering Kazakh pedestrian mall, and before we knew it we’d been seduced by a Starbucks copycat joint, where we proceeded to spend an unearthly amount of money on cups of coffee and wifi.

Little did we know upon entering that in order to be issued wifi passwords, we needed to spend a certain amount of money, we found this fact out after already ordering our cups, so we just decided to go whole hog and began ordering soups, salads, baskets of bread, Doner Kababs and the like, in order to reach the expenditure required to achieve wifi access.

It was good to be on the internet. Just that brief session left us with a much more positive general outlook on life. We bounded back to our cycles and headed from there up to Transavia where we picked up our passports, paying them another unearthly amount of money.

We then headed off to find train tickets on the next day’s train to Astana, the brand new, Dubai-esque capital of Kazakhstan. We began first at what would seem the logical place to buy tickets: the train station. But we should have learned our lesson from our trials in Shymkent. The train station was a desperate madhouse full of people cutting in line, screaming at each other and ticket selling windows that would close at a moment’s notice sending their lines to disperse out into the room, frantic, frustrated, and ready to cut anyone without the means or the chutzpa to defend themselves.

On top of that, the people in line with us all seemed to be headed to Astana as well. “Oh, you won’t get tickets,” they said “No more tickets here. We’re going to take the train to a nearby town and from there take a bus.”

This was disheartening but also information that was none too trustworthy. People tell us things all the time on AsiaWheeling and half of it is lies. The art is deciding which to listen to and which to disregard. We profess by no means to be masters of this art…

Regardless, eventually we gave up on ever getting service at the train station and, after calling Mr. Berghoff for advice, headed out to find a private train booking office. Luckily these, were on every street corner. Unluckily, it seemed that there was indeed some truth to the communications that he had gotten from our fellows waiting in line at the train station. Tickets seemed few and far between.

Right off the bat, we had the opportunity to buy two first class tickets, for about 80 dollars each, but that seemed monumental (we later found it was, by Kazakh standards at least, not), so we continued on. We would wheel for a bit, spot a ticket selling office, and then I’d go running in to ask the same questions in Russian. Do you have tickets to Astana for the day after tomorrow? No eh? How about bus tickets? Sorry for asking. Do you have any idea who might be able to help us? No? Well sorry for wasting your time.

Each interaction was exhausting. For one reason or another, the people of this city were unreasonably grumpy. I thought I’d known grumpy, living in Russia, but this was a new level. Each interaction felt like an open conflict, wrought with distrustful looks and judgmental comments about my not planning ahead. I was trying to do business with these people, trying to give them money! Why were they angry at me?!?

And so it went for another couple of hours, negative interaction after negative interaction, all of them explaining in one way or another that we could not get to Astana. We’re booked this whole month. Only one ticket available, for 100 dollars. There are two of you! Scoff! Good luck getting to Astana! Why did you not plan your trip in advance? Astana is a popular destination, how can you expect me to accommodate you at the last minute? Buses?! Can’t you read!?

Honestly I could only read as many words as I knew, which was not that many. I was becoming increasingly sapped of energy by the negative interactions, and soon I confessed to Scott that I could not do this much longer. So we decided to just ride to the bus station.

And off we went. It was no short journey and required a fair bit of asking for directions. When we stopped to ask a very old man with a long white beard who looked like he could have walked right out of a 1980s Hong Kong Kung Fu flick, I realized that it was the first positive interaction I’d had in eons. It felt good, giving me some more energy to pour into the ride.

Also, stopping at a roadside milk stand to buy a little Kefir helped as well. The Kefir here in Kazakhstan was really outstanding, rejuvenating in fact, hell I’ll call it magical. The packaging was also incredible.

We found the bus station to be plenty crowded with people trying to get to Astana as well, and we rushed through the jungle of loading busses to dash inside. I was even able to wait in line without being cut.

There was a good feeling to this bus ticket thing, even if it was, assuming I understood the woman correctly, going to be at least 16 hours of riding through the empty Kazakh steppe.

But the tickets were cheap and available, and armed with assurance that we would eventually get to Astana in time to catch our flight to Novosibirsk, we hopped back on the bikes, feeling like a great weight had been lifted from our shoulders. We pulled over to the side of the road on our way back to taste a little bit of the Kvas being served up by one of the many giant steel tanks, operated by yellow aproned ladies that lined the road to the bus station. To dispose of the cups, one would skewer them with a long vertical rod.  This puncturing would signal that the cups were “spent” and prevent patrons from thinking they may be reused.  There may also be a small part of everyone at needs to puncture a plastic cup at 3:30pm in Almaty to sustain sanity.

It was a long hard wheel back to our neighborhood, and we realized we were plenty starving by the time we got there, so we headed into a little Russian bakery to have a snack.

We spent the rest of that day working on correspondence for you, dear reader, and woke up the next morning bright and early to wheel to the bus station. We felt we needed to get there early, in order to ensure a spot for our cycles on the bus. And we were lucky we did, for a few wrong turns added a fair bit to our time wheeling to the station.

Once we got there, it was not obvious at all where we would find our bus. The station was packed and chaotic, and signs and markers were few and far between. Eventually after talking to a number of people, we found our way to a deserted back section of the station, where I wandered over to ask once again of a fellow sitting there on a bench next to his duffel bag where we might find out bus.

He turned out to be going to Astana as well. He was actually a Kazakh PhD student fresh back from America, and heading to the new capital to give a report on what he had learned on his visit (Nice!).  He was more than happy to show us the proper way to purchase luggage permits for our cycles and bags and how to snag the front spot in line to load them into the belly of the bus. While Scott was chatting with him and a group of fellow travelers who were forming around us, I snuck off to buy us some of the larg triangular shaped Kazakh Somsas. They were full of meat and cabbage and very tasty.

Then we were on the bus. It was going to be a very long ride, and with no bathroom on board, I was careful not to drink very much water. I tried to write as we drove but so bad were the roads, and so violent the resulting bouncing around of the bus as it went over them, that I found computing a complete waste of time. I chose instead to stare out into infinite of the steppe which just rolled mesmerizingly by.

A few hours into the ride, the crew started playing highlight reels from Kazakh dog fights. Dog fighting is a very popular spectator sport here. It’s also savagely violent. We could not tell whether to be amused or slightly sickened by the footage, so we settled for a combination of both.  This popular music video should illustrate the theater of brutality in Kazakh popular culture.

Perhaps 5 hours in, we stopped at a little melon selling operation in the middle of the steppe. The people there were really going for it, producing melons here in the middle of nowhere, so we decided we should support them by purchasing a few.

Our new friend helped us to choose the best ones.

One of the melons had been painted silver. This was, I believe a marketing gimmick, though it might also have had some mystical significance.

About 8 hours in, we stopped at a roadside restaurant called “Café Tranzit.”

Here finally we were able to have some Kazakh food, which was very interesting.

We ordered a few dishes, one of them consisted of large pieces of stewed mutton and a great many raw onions, another was a borsch like soup, featuring a heavy dollop of mayonnaise instead of the traditional sour cream. They also had their own variation on Lakman. I would say Kazakh food is a little like Uzbek food, only less approachable.

It was Ramadan at the time, so our friend was unable to join us in eating. However, most courteously, our bus driver waited until the sun had ducked down behind the outhouses before he left, giving the more observant Muslims on the bus a chance to eat quickly before we left.

We drove on into the night, bouncing over the terrible roads, dodging potholes, and slowing down to drive through sections where the road just dissolved into gravely steppe, until suddenly there was a large noise and the bus pulled over.

Everyone got out and the driver and his team began to go to town working so solve some issue that had cropped up with the suspension of the bus. Fixing it required taking the wheel on and off a few times, and inflating and deflating the cylinder that controlled that wheel’s pneumatic suspension repeatedly as well.

I was unable to tell exactly what they were doing, but in an hour or so’s time, and a bunch of hissing valves, clanging metal, and Kazakh swear words later, all was more or less well again, and we hit the road. Now Scott and I were able to drift off to sleep, and were even able to rest a few hours longer into the morning than expected, with our bus arriving 3 hours late in Astana, getting us in, instead of at 4am, at the much more civilized hour of 7.


  1. John Norton | December 15th, 2010 | 2:17 pm

    Great pix–the blue and pink wall and the bakery shot.

  2. Selin | December 21st, 2010 | 5:08 am

    Hi guys! It is always nice to read your posts in the breaks! Keep posting 😀
    Everything sounds so nice, I want to travel in all those places! But this year will probably just be Italy or Spain!
    I hope both of you are doing well!

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