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So far From Indonesia

We woke up the next mooring in our grimy hovel of a soviet apartment in Astana, Kazakhstan, city of wonder and newness, to some violent knocking on the thick steel door of our apartment, I threw on a pair of pants and stumbled my bed bug bit ridden body over to the door, shirtless, just stinking of Ultrathon, and still working to get my eyes to focus.

It was our Babushka, the woman who rented us the apartment. Knowing that my Russian was bad, she was very careful to speak slowly and use easy to understand words. As far as I could tell, she had just come over at 8:00 in the morning to chat. So chat we did. She bustled around the apartment, noting approvingly that we had been “cooking” in the place (if boiling water for coffee and pouring bowls of cereal counts, then yes ma’am). After we had reached the full extent of my vocabulary and thoroughly chatted all the topics which I knew how to chat, she finally got down to business and we began brainstorming together places for me to hide the key when we left the next day at 5am to wheel to the airport. Finally we decided on a grubby little hole in the wall in the stairwell. And with that, she leaned over and kissed both of my cheeks. “You are such a good boy! Such a fine ‘sportsmen’” (which is the Russian term for a male or female athlete) “So brave you are! Can I call you my son?”

Oh, shucks. Sure you can call me your son, lady. And with that, she kissed both of my cheeks and gave me a big gelatinous hug, and disappeared through the door. “Be careful! Good luck, my son!” she called out as she locked the deadbolts one by one. The conversation had been a gleamingly positive interaction amidst the sea of Kazakh grumpiness. Why, showered as they are with money from the heavens, giant booming growth, and not that many people to spread the wealth among, can so many of the people we meet in this country get away with being so darned grumpy? Thank goodness for people like Nurbek (our RFID engineering friend for the bus)and our dear Babushka.

I then headed into the kitchen to burn the last bits of a lavender scented candle which we knew would do nothing to combat the mildew stench of the place. Scott rolled out of bed, no doubt awoken by our conversations, and we tried not to scratch our bed bug bites as we crunched mouthfuls of Imported Russian cereals.

From there we headed directly back to the ornate confines of the Radisson hotel, where we spent quite a few hours lapping up their wireless internet, which at nearly 20 k/s was the fastest we’d experienced in months.


When we began to get hungry again, we headed out in search of food. When we tried to do so, of course, the usual problem presented itself, namely that Astana has not too many restaurants, and what it does have is mostly hyper expensive. So we ended going to a grocery store where we purchased food for a picnic: dark bread, grapes, kefir, tiny oily fish, a couple larger smoked fish, some salty smoked string cheese,  loaf of raisin and nut bread, and a package of locally produced prosciutto type stuff.

It was all quite delicious and we talked about what a wild wheel we had had the day before as we dug into the food.

The rest of that day was spent bouncing from location to location in Astana, searching for internet, but always coming crawling back to the Radisson, which as far as we can tell, after trying multiple internet cafes, and even the supposedly wifi enabled mall, the only place in Astana where a fellow can actually connect his own computer to the interwebs. City of the future indeed…

The search for internet was reminiscent of our search for train tickets in Almaty. We would come into businesses, with the intention of paying them for use of the internet, and they would greet us with hostility and grumpiness. There were a few marked exceptions, but this was proving an incredibly tiring place to travel, not so much because of the logistical hassles, of which there were many, but mostly because of the constant drain of negative interactions with the locals. Kazakhstan had been a very important place to visit, but I was excited to get on a plane the next day and head back to Mother Russia. It had been some time for me, and I was excited to see which parts of my bright eyed and bushy tailed youthful experience of the place still held true now that I was becoming a gnarled and cynical traveler.

That evening, we were rolling by the giant medieval beer hall, “Line Brew,” that we had seen on our first wheel of Astana when we were called over by a couple of characters standing outside the restaurant smoking very thin cigarettes. They turned out to be sunglasses distributers for some of the larger malls in Astana and Almaty. And when we told them that we were sponsored by Maui Jim, taking out our Dawn Patrols as proof, they became very interested in what we were doing and invited us into the interior of the restaurant for a drink and some sausages.

They only drank Leffe beer, they explained, which here in Kazakhstan is frighteningly expensive, but they assured us that they were footing the bill, and proceeded to order a few sizzling plates of sausages. We talked with them into the night, over 12 dollar glasses of Leffe beer, about the sunglasses industry. One of them was a Slovenian chap, who had moved to Italy to play professional Soccer at the fall of the Soviet Union, and now had built a business for himself importing Italian luxury goods into the post-soviet world. The other was an Slavic Astana local, from back in the times when the city was a Soviet backwater full of caucasians. He spoke with gusto about the tumultuous changes that were happening in the city now, and summed it up quite nicely in Russian, which I will do my best to translate:

“For you it may be these bicycles and the Maui Jim. For us Kazakhs, it must to the Hummer and the Gucci.”

On our way back to the hotel, we ran into some rather inebriated Kazakh teenagers. There were four of them, who called out to us in Russian flagging us down to chat. We probably should have just ignored them as the old woman had said, but one of the lessons of AsiaWheeling has been that most people are friendly, so we decided not to, pulling our bikes over. Unfortunately, we immediately began to get a bad vibe from these guys. They were drunk and emotional, envious of us, and looking for opportunities to assert themselves. And not long after this group photo was taken, we began to feel downright hostility coming from them, even with the possibility of violence.  As we slowly made our way away from, they grabbed us by the shoulder and insist that we continue talking.

And so it was that we executed the first red alarm escape of AsiaWheeling. The fellows of course spoke only Russian, and as I was doing my best to dissolve the situation in my broken Russky, and Scott was doing his best to be endearing with the smattering of words that he had picked up since we’d landed in Uzbekistan. We were discussing in English our plan to, once we had found an opening, just hop on our cycles and disappear. We began to wheel the bikes away from the guys, which made them irate, and they began to close the gap.  Then it seemed our last chance before they would have encircled us. So we hopped on the cycles and began pedaling.

The guys did not give chase, thank goodness, for they looked fast, and with there being no handicapped access ramps in Astana, our escape route would have been easy to intercept for a man on foot, so robbed as we were of the ability to wheel up onto the sidewalk. All said, it was a hair raising experience, and we were quite happy to lock the door behind us, retreating into the rotting, stinking, and insect infested apartment that we were calling home. We hustled to pack up our things, slather on the bug repellant and go to sleep, for we had to get up in a few hours to wheel to the airport in time to catch our Air Astana flight to Novosibirsk.


Comments

  1. Isman | September 29th, 2011 | 1:39 am

    Wow…Cool…..you must trial @ Bogor …West Java….there is many culinary for your try….in Bogor have many cyclist people who use for bike to work….
    will be welcome if you wanna try

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