There are some places on the map where almost no one goes. Sometimes there’s a reason for that.
As I lay on my dorm room bed in agony a fat, silent teenager watched me impassively from the opposite bunk. He sat staring at me for several hours, but whether he was concerned or enjoying my suffering, neither emotion managed to reach his face. This was not how I imagined Kazakhstan would be.
The romantic ideal of a passage through the high Karakoram Mountains evaporated with the grim realization that I could not detour several thousand kilometers in the wrong direction to Beijing to get a for a visa to Pakistan. So it was a pure accident of geography, combined with a hatred of Russian bureaucracy (now intensified) that brought me to Kazakhstan. A similar whim of geology has left the country endowed with plentiful natural resources, bringing hordes of rich foreign investors looking to decrease said resources. Prices push up.
All of which leads me to two important points:
1. I did not mean to be in Kazakhstan.
2. I didn’t know it would be so expensive. In China, a basic en-suite hotel room will cost you around $8; in Almaty, prices start around $60. $12 will buy you a bed in a scummy dorm at the train station, where you will share a room with three other men, at least two of whom are having a snoring duel. In the morning you will shower in cold water, after being rudely awakened by a woman who never, ever smiles, even when evicting you from a warm room at 9am.
The road from the border of China gave me no clue as to the days ahead. Surreally beautiful mountains lay permanently to the South, their bases shrouded in mist of an exact hue to the clouds above, an entire mountain range floating in the middle distance. At half way we stopped by a field of purest red poppies, undulating to a rise some distance away before erupting into mountain tops beyond. The air felt clean. I did some cartwheels, feeling the long lines of the border fade out of my bones.
But over the next few days, my body started to fail me with vicious enthusiasm. A routine stomach bug segued effortlessly into fever and flu, then the most intense earache I can remember from my adult life. The pain left me shaking in a heap on my bed while a vigil of sorts was held by my roommates; the rotund watcher scrutinized my progress without interest while an older man nursed me with water and aspirin, his nonchalant friend translating sympathy from time to time. Even more help was given by the college students that found me crying in a pathetic heap outside the train station where I was dropped, who found me cheap lodgings and bought painkillers and vitamins to ease my plight.
It has always been this way on my travels. Whenever I am at a low point and in need of help, kind strangers have given it, and I thank the people of Kazakhstan. The old gold-toothed Muslim ladies on the way to their Turkmenistani Mecca, who taught me to laugh without really knowing what’s funny; the hardened railway worker who shared his wine and stories with such generosity; the drunken hobo who refused to believe I spoke no Kazakh but kept me company on my street wanderings. It is not Kazakhstan or her people that darkened my week; the blame lay with God, and Russian bureaucracy.
The Russian government must have a saying along the lines of “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in triplicate and overcharging for.” If not, they’re only fooling themselves. I can only imagine the dark sadism of those who dreamt up the procedures for their embassies – the needless humiliation of herding us behind ten-foot razor-wire gates to await our time of calling, coming sporadically through an ancient, crackly intercom. The guards, wearing hats that are clearly oversized dinner plates stretched into fabric, made no attempt to institute a system of queuing, which is thus left to the laws of chaos and brute will.
I hadn’t even wanted to go to Russia; it was merely another necessity of geography to cross it by train. But the man behind the glass didn’t even blink while charging me $130 dollars for this dubious privilege. “It’s a different visa” he shrugged. There isn’t enough vitriol in my body to fight this kind of thing. I shrugged back and handed over the money.
There were good times, of course. With a little more energy inside me, I found a group of Kazakh students who put a smile on my face with bad techno music and some extreme Frisbee, and even showed me their home movie of their dog humping a cat. Weird has a great deal more ferocity when experienced with a mind full of potent painkillers, and I enjoyed it more than you probably should appreciate interspecies pornography of this kind.
But my overwhelming memories of this fine country are of pain and frustration, and changing this seems more than enough reason to return; for if strange porn and Frisbee can’t edge ahead in memory then clearly the good times have been short changed.