Kazakhstan greeted us with the sound of the Beatles playing from a speaker outside a slick new shopping centre. Inside its air conditioned walls were all the big clothing names, an Apple computer store and a thoroughly modern supermarket. We were back in the land of vegetables wrapped in plastic and whole rows devoted to olive oil. Returning outside, it took us a moment to recover from the shock of seeing our first real supermarket since Turkey. As we rested in the shade we watched brand new SUVs roll down the streets of Shymkent and young women parading in high heels down the newly cobbled and tree-lined sidewalks.
Was this really Kazakhstan? It felt more like a middle-class London suburb. Up the road from the shopping centre was a restaurant with wireless internet access where Kazakhs were surfing the net on their laptops. Around the corner, a night club had just opened charging 3,000 Tenge for admission – about $25 U.S. – for admission, no drinks included.
By now we’d realised that Kazakhstan was the most prosperous country in the region by a long way and the prices reflected its riches. Everywhere in Shymkent, one of Kazakhstan’s largest cities, people seemed to be pursuing Western standards of wealth and for the first time in quite a while we felt like the poor cousins.
It was different in the countryside, of course. There we found people still in traditional dress, the women with their colourful headscarves, the men in felt hats. To the east we were treated to a stunning view of blue skies and snow-capped mountains and all around horses grazed in green fields, newly born foals at their sides. But even far from Shymkent, the new cars rolled by us regularly. There were far fewer Ladas here than in Uzbekistan and many more people wearing dark glasses and dressed impeccably in tailored suits.
Having money was perhaps the key to getting through the Uzbek-Kazakh border quickly and without resorting to violence. It started peacefully enough on the Uzbek side. We’d been worried about a fine for being unregistered for a few days but in the end no one wanted to check our papers. With the exit stamp in our passport, we proceeded to the first Kazakh checkpoint with the other cars. We’ve always crossed with motor vehicles but the guard here wasted no time in letting us know that unless we gave him some money we could forget about that idea. Instead he motioned to the pedestrian crossing where hundreds of people were huddled in front of eight processing windows, literally pushing and elbowing each other to get into prime position.
We had no desire to pay a bribe so off we headed into the chaos. Friedel stayed with the bikes to protect them from the crowd that had gathered around while Andrew somehow managed to avoid the fist fights and find a window that wasn’t processing Kazakh visas but would take our foreign passports. He was back with the bikes within fifteen minutes as a result but Michel, a French man we met in Samarqand and who we’ve been cycling with since Tashkent, wasn’t so lucky. Queuing up with the Kazakhs, he watched a woman punch a man on the chin and several other near blows before he finally got his passport stamped. Unfortunately he didn’t get a crucial immigration card so then he had to go through the whole process again. Overall it was nearly two hours of border fun before we finally rode off into Kazakhstan.
Our journey over the next few days will take us towards Taraz. With time to kill on our Kazakh visa and apparently some beautiful vistas on the way, we plan to take it easy, hopefully doing some camping with prime mountain views. We want to reach Almaty in another week or so, where we’ll make the first enquiries about getting a Russian visa. With China off the menu, it looks like it’s a trip to Vladivostok for us, paperwork permitting.