By Brianna 06/March/17 Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan might just be the greatest country in the world. In fact, I would go as far as to say that all other countries are run by little girls. You cannot deny their superiority in the exportation of potassium, making up for the sub-par export efforts extended by other Central Asian nations. And don't get me started on the prostitutes. Borat taught us all some important life lessons, but, being filmed in Romania and having next to nothing to do with Kazakhstan itself, it couldn't have prepared us for this level of awesomeness...
Sorry to disappoint you, but Borat's interpretation of Kazakhstan has absolutely nothing in common with the real thing. It's almost as if it was completely made up for comic effect. Still, it felt bizarre for us to be stepping on to Kazakh soil, a place that felt so far away from the UK and any other country we had visited so far. The smooth transition was over, broken by the Caspian Sea. We were in new, 'Stan' territory now and who knew what would be waiting for us...
'Is that an Irish Pub?'
'Cheds we haven't seen an Irish pub since Bratislava, I don't think they're going to have one in Aktau.'
'Hmmmm... There's Guinness here, I can sense it. Its calling to my Irish blood.'
We were sat in the back of Rasul's car, a friend from the ferry and the only other tourist on board. Not only did he give us a ride into his home town, he translated for us at three separate hotels so that we could find one that suited our budget. Yes, there are more than three hotels in this west-coast Kazakh seaside town, we were surprised too. Not as surprised as we were, however, to discover that Cheddar was spot on about the Irish pubs. As our first glimpse at Central Asian life, Aktau came as a bit of a reverse culture shock. On the surface it seemed kind of... western. We were expecting to step off the boat and right into the deep end with this little-trodden tourist destination. True, international tourists are few and far between in Aktau, but they do have plenty of expats to enjoy the American coffee houses, burger bars and even clubs that litter the shoreline. It was like your typical, run-down, off-season seaside town in the UK. For us, it was Morecambe. Well, an ex-soviet Morecambe. Numbered, grey apartment blocks and communist street-art prevented Aktau from losing all of its Russian ties:
It didn't look like much, plus there wasn't much else to do in autumn other than get battered by sea spray and gorge yourself on cheap beer and burgers. But what made Aktau special was the fact that it was home to some of the loveliest people we had met so far on the road. The wonderful Rasul set the bar high, but meeting 'Beautiful' cemented our love for Kazakhstan in a couple of days. We met Beautiful (the apt English translation of her name (please don't ask me what the Kazakh/Turkmen version is)) at the train ticket office, where she explained to us how to get to the train station. She was very interested in what the hell we were doing in Aktau and we chatted as we walked with her all the way to the bank. Later on that day, we realised that Cheddar's bank card had temporarily relocated to an unknown destination. As the last place we remembered having it was the bank, we contacted Beautiful to ask if she had seen anything after we had left. We contacted the right person. She put it out on social media for Aktau lost and found, as well as offering us a lift to the train station so we would have time to go to the bank when it opened in the morning.
After a very restless night's sleep, we were very lucky to talk to the right person at the bank who had picked up the card the day before. We bought Beautiful some chocolates to say thank you and prepared ourselves to tackle entering Uzbekistan. Beautiful and her cousin picked us up and brought us to the station, which was 30km away from... well... anything. We exchanged life stories and in a half hour car ride became great friends with the pair whose town we probably will never go back to. As we bid our thanks and farewells, Beautiful showered us in gifts for our train ride, which included:
Enough food to last us for our 25 hour journey, including delicious home made pastries and Turkmen meat and potato pies. Tea, coffee, hot chocolate and paper cups so we could make use of the free hot water on board A CD by a major Kazakh artist. A pretty pink headscarf for me to wear. A necklace, which Cheddar likes to think was for him. And possibly THE best chocolate you can buy in the whole of Asia:
Needless to say our poxy box of chocs was insufficient gratitude. When we boarded the train 45mins early, we were surprised to find it slowly filling up already: we had heard that Central Asian trains can be a bit of a free-for-all and so people come prepared. Get there early, get your bed made up (even if its 11:30am like it was in this case) and get some shut eye. Alternatively, once you get comfy and and the train starts chugging, you can whack out your plates, noodles, teapot, dumplings and naan and begin preparing that epic feast you carried on board with you. Or both. In Kazakhstan, the train is your new family so don't be afraid to share some food and conversation with anyone, the other passengers certainly won't be. Unfortunately, our extremely limited Russian and our non-existent Kazakh meant we mainly had to communicate in gestures. The easy-going atmosphere made for a very peaceful journey as we rattled into the baron nothingness that consumes most of Kazakhstan, awing at the wild camels with their nomadic swagger across the desert.
When we arrived in the middle of the night to the border town of Beyneu, we didn't expect it to be heaving with hundreds of people on a random weekday night. People and stalls were everywhere, selling your long-haul train needs 24/7. As we were attracting a fair bit of attention, we hid out in a closed tea shop/store room/cupboard with a family who found my feeble attempt at pronouncing Kazakh words an unlimited resource of entertainment. The attention we were receiving was far from negative - it was just a bit much to deal with in the early hours of the morning after a long train ride, and with our party of pasty faces, huge backpacks and a pompous mouse, blending was never going to be much of an option. We dragged out our tea and waited for the time to tick over to 3am. It turned out that we were lucky to have those few hours because it gave our brains time to process that our train actually departed at 2am, not 3am. All train tickets in Kazakhstan are set to Astana time, so you have to adjust your departure to the time zone you are in. And it took us a while to realise that we had to board an hour earlier than was printed on the ticket.
Our first taste of Kazakhstan was not what we expected. It was even better. But it didn't really help us warm up to the mental ways of its newly dictator-less neighbour, Uzbekistan. We waited to board or train into uncharted territory with hoards of tired-strangers, all of us willing the train to arrive so we could get into our bunks and go to sleep. Little did we know that Uzbekistan had other plans for us...
But we'll chat about that next time. Until then, friends!