The well-dressed fellow at our table didn’t look like your typical alcoholic. With his well tailored suit and fancy watch he seemed more like a business man waiting for a meeting. But in the few minutes since we’d been at the cafe he’d already ordered three pitchers of vodka and a large beer. Four plates of meat and french fries also appeared along with bread and salads at our table but this seemed more for our benefit than his. He barely touched his meal as he downed shot after shot of vodka and rambled on to us in Russian.
In fact the man was already taking a great interest in our friend Michel when we arrived. We’d only just found Michel after being separated when we stopped to register our visa in Shymkent and he carried on down the road. We vastly underestimated how long it would take to work through post-Soviet bureaucracy and our hopes of leaving Shymkent to catch up with Michel by noon were quickly thwarted. “Come back at 5pm,” the man behind the desk said. By the time we left Shymkent on Monday the evening call to prayer was already ringing out over the city.
Three days later, having cycled over scenic rolling hills and past beautiful mountain views, we were excited to see Michel again but confused by his unwanted companion, who invited himself to the table as he was passing by. On and on the man babbled in Russian while the rest of us spoke in French. He didn’t seem to mind that we had no idea what he was saying or that we were largely ignoring him because we had no hope of communicating. As hungry cyclists we appreciated the food he’d insisted on ordering but also happy to make our escape an hour or so later. The man shook our hands energetically and then went back to his vodka.
Just around the corner we met Colin, an American Peace Corps volunteer who’d kindly offered to let us stay for a night. Colin wasn’t too surprised by our encounter, telling us that there were many veterans of the war in Afghanistan and the nuclear distaster in Chernobyl in Taraz who’d struggled since returning from their experiences. Apparently some doctors even prescribed vodka to their patients as they returned home, saying it had medical benefits.
A short walk from the centre we arrived at Colin’s apartment, another marvel of Soviet buildings. It was constructed in the 1990s but looks at least twenty years older from the outside. Inside it’s full of quirks like a gas leak that means you should always keep the windows open and a toilet you have to flush by manually pouring water into the bowl but it’s nevertheless a very welcome home for the night. A hot shower in itself puts the whole world right after a few days of camping and cycling.