Road Stories #35: Hitchhiking the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border
We had been in Bishkek far too long. In spite of the fact that we had successfully played a game of visas and visited a yurt and taken a trip to Issyk-kul to do some hiking we once again found ourselves like the proverbial fly on a steaming shit, repulsed but inextricable drawn towards Bishkek’s questionable charms.
Finally, however, the time had come to break free, a new heart of darkness lay concealed behind imposing mountains. Kazakhstan, in all its vastness, was calling and no more could we ignore its appeals.
Hitchhiking to the Kyrgyzstan – Kazakhstan border
The hitchhike began as all good hitchhikes do, with a bus to the edge of town. Some overpriced food swiftly followed and after checking more times than is necessary that we were in fact carrying our passports, we took to the road.
Getting to the border was preposterously easy. One guy, on his way to pick up his wife from the very same crossing, took us all the way there. The only things of note were the ominously storm clouds and the point when a guy tried to single handedly stop our car by pulling on the wing mirror when we were pulling into park. Don’t ask me why.
The border crossing
The crossing itself was a playground of confusion. People, ducking and diving like some grotesque game of tag. Me first, I need to save 15 seconds. Police funnelling ever larger crowds into ever smaller spaces. Boxes, more boxes than at a dock, dragged, pulled, pushed and thrown. A dollar made by selling cereals, fruit, bread and cigarettes on the other side.
If only people would queue, life would be a lot easier and certainly less stressful. We made the mistake of picking up our bags a second too late and old ladies with sharp elbows and joyless mouths gobbled up the space. We mockingly laughed at their impatience, they guffawed at our naivety. Shoulders throbbing, sweat dripping, time moving as slowly as we were.
After an age, we reached the border control, packed and chaotic. The process was actually simple enough, complete a slip of paper, fight to the front and get your face in the window. A dismissive wave through later and we burst out of the sea of people and filled our lungs with air. We had made it to Kazakhstan, the last stan on our trip.
Our first hitchhike in Kazakhstan
We walked 200m after the crossing and around a bend until we couldn’t see the blue frame of the checkpoint anymore. We hopefully stuck our thumbs out, were ignored a few times, turned down a lift because we didn’t really understand where he wanted to take us and finally jumped into a car with an elderly gent who said he would take us to the perfect spot. Unfortunately for us, it happened to be where shared taxis congregated.
Another 200m walk and we tried again. This time it proved to be a lot more difficult. Why would people help us if they could stop a second before and collect people willing to pay? The road was long and straight and there really was nowhere we could go that would improve our chances. So we stayed, waving at cars, reading their plates from behind as they sped on by. Eventually, another older guy stopped and told us he was going to the next turn. Not a great distance but a godsend to get us out of where we were.
He turned right into the surrounding countryside and we were on the road again, this time away from all civilisation. A car stopped that was going to Almaty. Bingo! Or not. As they wanted money and when we said ‘for free?’ they drove away without a second look. Still picking up our teeth from this kick in the face, a mini-truck slowed down. He was also going to Almaty and he didn’t want paying. The sun now shone through the clouds and the gods smiled.
The ride was our first chance to try and form some kind of impression of Kazakhstan and its people. The first thing to note was the emptiness. As we drove parallel with the mountains separating Kazakhstan and its southern neighbour, to the right a wall of rock, to the left, nothingness stretching to the horizon. The beginning of the Kazakh steppe which we knew that we would soon have to cross. That thought weighed on my mind a lot.
It was also refreshing when our driver was outraged that the car in front simply disposed of its rubbish by lobbing it out of the window. In Central Asia we had got used to this flagrant disregard for nature and he was the first dissenting voice we had heard in months. Our driver also treated us to some yoghurt soup (I wasn’t a fan) and I was surprised by this hospitable gesture as it was not something I was expecting much in Kazakhstan.
The continuation of Kazakh hospitality
We arrived in Almaty in the early evening. We thought we were not far from where we would be staying (with a CS host called Vano) but after walking for 30mins we began to realise our folly. We then jumped on a bus only to realise we had no change as we had just arrived and had had no time to break our notes. Thankfully an old man took pity and produced the money himself. Even more kindly, he got off the bus with us and he himself walked us to our host’s house. Within the first day our expectations of Kazakhs had been blown apart, they were not cold and hard like we had been expecting but quite possibly the lovliest people in the world.
written by: Jon