To my true Canadian spirit the bear statue called. Grasped in its claws, a cement rendition of meat on a stick – shashlik – calling not to my spirit, but to my stomach. I was in Kazakhstan, I was hungry, and I needed a place to sleep. Effective reconnaissance of the latter can sometimes be completed over a leisurely meal.
The restaurant was shaded by a leafy canopy, tables for sitting cross-legged arranged around a central fountain. Groups of diners had come and go at other tables. They had greeted me, but no one had asked me to join them or their vodka consumption. It was just me, my map, simple food and about forty flies.
Initially, the woman thought I just wanted to nap. The food here can have that effect, and when your table is surrounded by pillows…deadly combination. Attempt two, remembering to implement the key phrase along with my gestures of sleep: ‘zaftra‘ (tomorrow). Returning with a blanket, she quietly nodded and smiled the permission of whoever was in charge.
The out-of-order bag scanner and nonchalant customs lady had calmed my nerves as I pushed my bike slowly out of the building earlier that afternoon. Without a pen for the forms, without speaking Russian to understand the forms, I had crossed the land border north of Tashkent, Uzbekistan into Kazakhstan without much difficulty. That’s not a brag – it’s just that those around me were helpful and patient. I’m not doing so well with collecting horrifying Central Asian border/guard/visa stories. What will we talk about at the bar?
The real moment of truth, the foundation that I was build my first impressions up from, came as the narrow gangway carried me through the gate, into the (urban) wilderness. One more passport check gave me pause to quickly absorb the scene immediate. The ramp was lined with men on both sides, parked cars and food stalls beyond.
How unexpected that, allowed across the threshold into the town of Zhibek Zholy the welcoming was anticlimactic. And how I appreciated it. Neither the heat nor the people sought to teeter over the traveler, tumbling again into a state of newborn bewilderment. Perhaps as border after border thrusts one into a new package of unknowns, defence mechanisms become tied to crossing a frontier. Here in Kazakhstan, without anyone asking me to take a taxi, asking me to change money, asking me anything, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself, having no need to react to anyone with dismissal while absorbing and interpreting new surroundings.
It’s only been a few days, a few kilometres (130 at time of writing) but there’s been little need yet for me to readjust my impression of Kazakhstan. I am cautious to be sure, but on the road I am again and again shown a kind of relaxed and restrained friendliness by the people in the south of this massive country. There’s smiles, waves, honks and hellos, a few questions but no pestering. I’m helped to lift my bike up over the curb, and then he walks away. There’s hospitality, long naps in a stranger’s house, places to sleep – but only if I ask for it. Then given, with that nonchalance that greeted me at the border. It’s all a little demure compared to many of the interactions we experienced in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Two exceptions to my first impressions: Ask for it or not, someone in each Central Asian state will likely take it upon themselves to initiate you into their local flavour of fermented milk product. In Kazakhstan, my moment with dairy destiny took place on my second afternoon. Kind of a barley yogourt cold soup. The second exception is that my first impressions of the heat have been adjusted. Restrained is not an adjective I would use. I have not melted yet!
This Kazakhstan vibe, it suits me – on my first few days of cycling alone – very well indeed. It’s early days but I hope that it continues. Did someone call ahead and request that the Kazakhs ease me into it?