What a week it’s been. In the past seven days we’ve been treated to Kazakh culinary delights and indulged in a little too much Kazakh cognac with our cycling friend Michel. We’ve pedalled alongside a stunning snow-capped mountain range, stopped to watch horses and their newborn foals grazing in green pastures and even dipped briefly into Kyrgyzstan, without a visa no less! Nearly every day we found a fresh mountain stream to wash in and every night we camped in a peaceful setting, watching shepherds on horseback drive their flocks home as the sun sank below the horizon.
Several hundred kilometers of blissful cycling later we reached the tree-lined streets of Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan before the government moved to Astana. Here a kind-hearted American named Abraham opened his one-room Soviet apartment to us for a few nights. We’re very grateful for his generosity. We’d probably have avoided Almaty altogether without Abraham’s help since Kazakhstan’s elite are present in large numbers here and finding a cheap hotel room is a difficult task indeed. Almaty on normal terms would simply be beyond our reach.
For the most part our impressions of Kazakhstan have changed a great deal since we arrived but one thing hasn’t shifted. We still feel very much the poor cousins, with obvious displays of wealth all around us. From our observations on the road, it seems at least one out of every three vehicles is a brand new SUV. On the city streets, men and women parade around in immaculate suits and we often see expensive electronics like flat-screen televisions as we peek through office windows.
There’s no doubt that many wallets are wide open here. What a pity that we can’t always say the same about people’s smiles. While the scenery is magnificent, the reception has been chilly in some places and this came as a bit of a shock after so long in countries where the traveller is an honoured guest.
Sometimes we tried to ask directions or for help using a telephone and got only a stony stare in reply. Dogs have chased after us while the owner stands with his arms across his chest and a “what do you want me to do about it” look on his face. In shops we say “hello” in Russian as we enter but, despite our best attempts at friendliness, the person on the other side of the counter usually returns our greeting with a look that’s so sad you wonder if they’ve just been released from several decades in a forced labour camp.
Of course not everyone is like this and we have met a few particularly lovely people. One man followed us for several kilometers in his car before he managed to stop us and extend an invitation to come eat at his cafe. Another offered us the use of his shower when we looked a bit scruffy after a few days of camping. But in general Kazakhstan has made us appreciate just what a special experience we had in Iran and Syria.
From here we still have another two weeks or so left on our Kazakh visa and before our Kyrgyz visa begins. We’ll probably cycle off into the mountains and enjoy the solitude before moving on to Bishkek to try and sort out a Russian visa or some other plan to go further east. We still don’t know quite how to do this. The bureaucracy is rather intimidating to say the least. But if we’re sure of one thing it’s that it’ll all work out in the end. Somehow it always does.