Road Stories #37: The highs and lows of hitchhiking across the steppe (+VIDEO)
The beginning: Hitchhiking across the steppe
The prospect of hitchhiking across the steppe between Kazakhstan’s two major cities never inspired us with optimism. We were going to cover a similar distance as from Poland to London with nothing but grass in sight and we knew it would probably take 2-3 days. But even so we were convinced we wanted to do it. Going to Kazakhstan and never looking at the steppe or never visiting its capital?
So on the day we assigned for the trip north, we took a mini bus to the outskirts of town but it didn’t go as far as it should have and we were dropped off in a tiny village. From there a Kazakh man and his wife in their dilapidated car took us to the right turn and the waiting game started.
Some cars went past, and most of them were empty, but they didn’t feel like stopping for us. We waited for about 1 hour and a half under the scorching sun with no trees to seek shelter under, feeling disappointed and fearing we would have to go back to Almaty before the night fell.
Then a young guy in a big 4×4 went past. We caught his eye but he didn’t stop either and we waited or 20 more minutes. Then all of a sudden he came back and told us to jump in.
He was a quiet guy who wasn’t really looking for a conversation across the boring steppe, so we either slept or read our books as there was nothing to look at outside. The journey took us about 7-8 hours and by the time we got to the town of Balkhash we were knackered by just looking at the endless grass. Our driver, who bought us some lunch on the way, decided to drive on to Astana, but we were pretty sure we were done for the day.
While the prospect of staying by one of Asia’s biggest lakes was quite attractive, the town of Balkhash itself was pretty ugly. In fact, we saw nothing but the polluting chimneys of factories in the distance, electricity pylons and cubic one storey buildings. The lake was quite far from where our driver dropped us off and it was getting dark, so we didn’t even bother hitching into town, but decided to pitch the tent somewhere near the road.
We went and asked at the roadside cafes and after a few rejections, one lovely family let us put our tent in their cafe’s “garden”. It wasn’t much of a garden really as there was no grass, just dried weed on this barren land, but it was fenced off and it had an outside toilet, which was a huge advantage given the lack of trees and bushes around.
More and more of the steppe
The next morning we were off towards the city of Karaganda where we had arranged a CS host. We had another long day ahead of us.
First we got picked up by a young couple who drove us to the right turn. There in the scorching sun we repeated our wait from the previous day. It took around 1 and half hours again before a truck driver came over to chat. He said he was going to get some lunch and would give us a lift if we’re still there by the time he came back. ‘Of course we will still be here‘, I thought, but I was wrong as 5 minutes later another truck driver stopped and offered to take us to Karaganda.
He, on the other hand, was really into speaking to us, so this time we couldn’t afford the comfort of sleeping or reading and felt obliged to repay our driver for taking us by entertaining him along the way. Truth be told, he wasn’t one of our favourite drivers and kept telling Jon off for whistling as apparently it brings bad luck.
He was nice enough though as, upon arriving in town, he called our host and drove us directly to his house.
Staying in with a pastor in Karaganda
Our host in Karaganda was a Russian protestant pastor living in a huge apartment which sometimes served him as a community meeting place. The room we slept in had a ping pong table which was great, given our love for the game!
Karaganda is Kazakhstan’s third biggest city and it positively surprised us with its lovely park and lively atmosphere.
The next day our host, who we thought was secretly trying to convert us, took us to a local Catholic church (a rare sight in Central Asia) where a Polish woman gave us a tour and sung Ave Maria with her beautiful contralto and organ accompaniment. Then, to keep the balance, we visited the local mosque, where our host went down on his knees and prayed like a Muslim, which we thought was a bit weird, but who are we to question anybody’s religious views.
Later on we went to a park where he insisted we try some of the ‘attractions’ which were either bumper cars (which I hate but Jon had a good time), punching a punch bag, going on one of the fun fair rides or shooting in a shooting range (called by the locals ‘TIR’ as it was made of a lorry transporter; all Kazakhs and Russians love their TIRs!).
We also met the local expat community including an American couple who lived in town some years ago and adopted 6 children, but due to the woman’s cancer had to go back to the States for treatment leaving the children behind. They were now back and visiting their Kazakh family.
All in all, Karaganda was interesting and the next day we were only going to hitchhike 200 km which made us extremely happy!
written by: Ania