Just like it was for those silk traders of yore, our route through Central Asia hasn’t always been easy. They had to suffer pretty serious inconveniences, like bandits, Sogdians, and months of long days on stinky camels. And recently, we suffered one long day on a hot, stinky bus. If this comparison isn’t apt, well, tell that to Asiman.
During our travels in western China this summer, the roads we’ve taken have often been completely ripped up (new roads in progress!), but the buses have been almost uniformly new-ish and in great working order. But here in eastern Kazakhstan, it was the opposite: the old Soviet-era roads are still pretty good (no new road construction here!), but the old buses are now very, very bad.
Actually, there were just two things we didn’t like about the giant luxury-style bus (with flying basketballs painted on the sides) that we took across the steppe, stopping in the border town of Zharkent. And truth be told, the aging engine, wheels and brakes all actually seemed to be quite well-maintained. But first, there was no air conditioning. And second, because the bus was designed to be air conditioned, the windows didn’t open. And okay, third: in an effort to keep this human-metabolism- and solar-powered tin oven from over-overheating, the bus operator had spraypainted a sloppy coat of white paint over all said unopenable windows. As for actual cooling effect, I don’t know how much the splotchy paint actually helped. But the overall sensory effect was six hours of sweaty sitting in cramped seats while a huge snow blizzard appeared to blast unceasingly across the desert outside. We rode hot and snow-blind across what might have been Earth’s most spectacular landscape, for all I know (we saw glimpses of steppe, lakes, and sandstone canyons). But the only opportunity to get out see the beauty of our surroundings was when we pulled up to an overfilled latrine for a bathroom break.
True relief only came when we finally pulled into Zharkent. Stumbling off the bus, we enjoyed about five seconds of cool, fresh evening air. Then we realized that we were just in a little parking lot on the side of the road we’d been on. There was nothing around except trees, trash, and a few burly drivers calling out to us in Russian. Finding a place to sleep for the night looked like it was going to be difficult.
Fortunately, the Russian I’d picked up in the last two weeks–okay, sign language–was enough to get us in a car and headed down a nearby wooded road. Twenty miles from the Khorgos border crossing, where China is currently finishing up a massive new free trade zone to attract business from the Central Asian, Russian and European economies, the Kazakh side was all quiet. We watched the sun dip below the poplar trees as we bounced over potholes: eventually we pulled up at the first two-story structure to appear, a restaurant/hotel combination with three rooms. Two were still available.
The present occupant turned out to be a young man from Almaty, a recently-graduated lawyer. He’d been sent by his company, an import/export business, to figure out an ambiguous deed to some property they’d already purchased along the border. As best as I can approximate, his name sounded like “Asiman,” and he spoke decent, if somewhat non-sequiter, English.
This turned out to be great luck, since we were clueless about where we could find something to eat (the downstairs restaurant was closed up). We all went out together, wandering down a few silent roads until we found a little eatery, a Kazakh version of a diner. It was called “Cafe Bueno,” and the walls hosted pictures of various places in Italy and the US. We ordered a meaty Kazakh meal while Owen pointed and oooh’d at the selection of watermelons. Sitting under a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, we talked about Owen (happily devouring said watermelon), the Olympics (Kazakhstan had won an amazing seven gold medals at that point) and the upcoming US elections. Asiman seemed to think Obama was too soft on China.
It was a cool, breezy evening and good barbeque, a relaxing final stop before crossing back into China in the morning. At one point, the waitress asked Asiman to ask us why Owen was so abundantly joyful. The answer was clear–watermelon!–but Bayley said it was because he was just so happy to be off that bus.
“Just like Marco Polo!” crowed our Kazakh friend. He translated for the waitress and they both laughed.
And seeing them laugh, Owen grinned. Watermelon juice was everywhere. The sun sunk low in the Kazakh sky as we made our dusty way back. And, after one last night of sleeping on soft Russian mattresses, we woke early to hit the border, cross into China, and be back in the land where we could tell the driver where to take us. Next up: we go to ‘Kazakhstan’–that is, “Place of the Kazakhs”–China-style.