Road Stories #39: Staying with the loveliest criminal in Kazakhstan
Hitchhiking from Astana to Temirtau
We were postponing the day we had to leave Astana for a long time but we knew that eventually we would have to face the steppe again.
We planned not to go too far south, though, as we wanted to visit Artyom who had been so good to us on our way to Astana and who was genuinely interested in hosting us and spending some time with us.
The distance of 200 km we covered with a lovely young businessman who was a Hare Krishna believer (Kazakhstan is an interesting place!). He was going to Karaganda but drove us via Temirtau and got in touch with Artyom to know exactly where to drop us off.
The loveliest criminal in Kazakhstan
Artyom took us to his house where his lovely wife Masha made us some delicious soup and she was a truly awesome cook! We relaxed in their house for a bit and when their friends arrived we drove to a hill where you could see the whole town at sunset. The surrounding landscape was almost beautiful if it wasn’t for the omnipresent factory fumes hanging low and spoiling the view. We’d hear Temirtau was one of the most polluted cities in the whole of Kazakhstan and that cancer wasn’t uncommon there (Arctyom’s sister was ill too).
The sun set and we went back and started a barbeque. There was more meat than we could eat and lots of beer to flush it down. Artyom had to do some business (strange, as it was quite late) but his friends kept us company. A usual conversation started: ‘where are you from?’, ‘what do you do?’ and so on… When we asked Artyom’s friends what their jobs were they all looked at each other, smiled as though they were hiding something and one of them said:
‘Just look at me.’
I looked but apart from his black clothes I didn’t notice anything unusual. It wasn’t any kind of uniform; there were no logos, just plain black clothes. I looked at him perplexed and seeing that I still didn’t get it, he said to one of his friends: ‘Bring the hats’ and they all pulled on their black beanies. Their hands were dirty and looked a bit blackened up but that could have been because of the barbeque.
I still didn’t understand what was so unusual in the way they were dressed, so they took us to the back yard and showed us a huge heap of scrap metal. There must have been around 5 tons of the stuff and we stood there stupefied.
‘This is what we do’, he said with a cheeky smile, ‘we go to the Mittel factory and steal metal which we then sell on the black market’, and they all giggled like schoolgirls.
Artyom came back a short time after that and his friends told him that we now knew the truth. He didn’t care, it wasn’t anything he was ashamed of doing, so we asked for more details:
‘So how much do you actually make?’
‘We can collect around 3 tonnes every night and for each ton we get around 100 pounds’.
Three hundred quid a day! That’s insane. No wonder they didn’t care about buying us food and beer. In fact, we learnt that the barbecued meat we were eating was also stolen and they had a full container of it, so we could have as much as we wanted.
We felt weird and torn. Mamma always told us stealing is bad and we have always tried to be law-abiding citizens. Some part of me demanded that I leave the table and disassociate myself from all this, forget about what I’d just heard and the meat I’d just eaten. But on the other hand Artyom had been nothing but benevolent to us. Him, his wife and friends meant no harm to us and treated us with more interest, respect and hospitality than most other people we had met in the country (and Kazakhstan is a hospitable and friendly place). We liked them, enjoyed their company and thought they were genuinely good folk. But not reporting a crime makes you the criminal’s accomplice, right?
We couldn’t bring ourselves to take any harsh actions against the hardened criminals we were sharing dinner with and the only way I dared to show my disapproval with was asking them: ‘What will you tell your children when they ask you what your job is’.
‘I will tell them that I go to work and that’s that‘, said one of Artyom’s friends.
‘But what if they would like to know more details and they would be genuinely interested in what you do?’, I insisted.
‘Then I will tell them not to ask too many questions because the less you know the better you sleep’.
We finished our food and they said their goodbyes as they had to go to ‘work’.
We spent the next couple of days being treated by this gang of smooth criminals like guests of honour. They fed us, made sure we had more alcohol and smoke than we could ask for, and they provided constant source of entertainment.
One day Artyom and his family took us to a local lake, where we could sunbathe and go down the water slide into this body of doubtfully clean water.
Later on we drove out of town and did what Kazakh people love the most – shooting. As we objected to hunting birds, they took an arsenal of empty bottles to aim at and they gave us a quick shooting lesson. Firing off a huge old Soviet gun was certainly an experience I wouldn’t like to repeat, but it was very interesting, nonetheless.
Then we drove home in his lovely 4×4. The car had a huge gaping hole in its dashboard, from where some wires were protruding, which made us think the car had been obtained illegally too. As we were driving past a heap of logs, Artyom suddenly stopped the car, got out, climbed the heap and looked around. The look in his face resembled one of an alert meerkat, looking round to see if any predators were coming. A meerkat thinking of doing bad things, trespassing the law and wanting to take possession of those logs.
In the evening we played cards and impressed our new friends with how well we could play the popular game of Bielka, which we had learnt in Astana.
And then there was a barbeque again, flushed down with gallons of free beer. And the recurring sense of guilt made us pick up the topic of their metal ‘business’ one more time.
‘Aren’t you scared that one day the police will knock on your door?’, I asked.
‘Don’t worry about that. They already know. They are our friends’, replied Artyom is his usual carefree manner.
On the day of our departure his words proved to be true and we learnt that Artyom was a well-connected and respected citizen. On the way to the hitchhiking spot, he drove us past a newspaper head office and after a quick conversation we were in, sitting for an interview. There were photos being taken and questions asked about our trip.
The our lovely criminal drove us to the edge off town. We hugged and thanked him for the immense hospitality he had offered. We genuinely liked this guy and it was a shame to leave Temirtau behind. But our Chinese visa was soon to start and we had places to be before that. Farewell, Artyom, it was a pleasure!
written by: Ania