A korner of Kazakhstan

Posted on 2019-10-11

Kazakhstan is our fifth and final Central Asian country. The ninth largest country in the world (by area), we are ironically spending relatively little time in this country, partly because of the lack of significant historical and natural sites (most of the country is endless, featureless steppe), and partly because we are quite burnt out. We have spent over four months in Central Asia now, and while each country has been different from the last, there are also strong similarities between them: the languages, the food, the social norms, etc. These cultural similarities have been both a boon and a bane, due to culture shock.

The term culture shock is a bit of a misnomer, because it is not so much a sudden "shock" when entering a new country, but rather a gradual progression through four stages over time: honeymoon, crisis, recovery, and adjustment. Surprisingly little has been written about culture shock during long-term travel; more has been written instead about reverse culture shock (when returning to one's home country after long-term travel). However, at the slow speed that we are going at, we spend so much time in a single culture before moving on to the next that culture shock has time to manifest.

For some everyday activities, we sailed through the four stages quickly and easily enough - adapting to food in Central Asia, for example (it's hopeless to try to find vegetarian food when eating out, so we either cook, or are not vegetarian when eating out). However, other things still annoy us to no end - the monkey drivers, the terror kids, the extra attention we attract everywhere. Here, we are still stuck in the crisis stage, slow to adapt because what is socially acceptable by the locals is just not acceptable to us, and we react not only with frustration, but also aggression. And it is this aggression that has shocked us the most. Before starting this trip, we were some of the calmest people we knew (there may be some self-aggrandising here, of course). But over the last few months, we have become so worn down by repeated encounters of the same "unacceptable" behaviour that our fuses have completely burnt out, and each new encounter is prone to triggering aggressive outbursts (only verbal so far) and thoughts ("all these brainless monkey drivers should be massacred"). To be fair, Kazakhstan has been much better than the previous countries, with no terror kids (maybe because school has started) and better drivers (except in busy city traffic). However, with nothing really new here to motivate us, all we really want to do is to make it to the next country, China, where we hope the culture is new and interesting enough to send us back into the honeymoon stage, at least for a while...?

So we are only cycling through a corner of Kazakhstan, because it is the easiest route from Bishkek to the Chinese border, and also because this route would take us through Almaty, the former capital and largest city of Kazakhstan, where we looked forward to indulging in a bit more comfort and better (gear) shopping in the most affluent country in Central Asia. It was an uneventful three days of cycling from Bishkek to Almaty, with an almost immediate change to a drier and flatter landscape once we crossed the border, though we still had one last hill to cross before we reached the steppe. The Kazakh people seem generally more friendly than the Kyrgyz, as we were offered free food and chatted up several times on our way.

And you thought Kazakhstan was flat?

And you thought Kazakhstan was flat?

Horses passing nearby our second campsite on the road from Bishkek to Almaty

Horses passing nearby our second campsite on the road from Bishkek to Almaty

We spent a week in Almaty, staying in an Airbnb apartment on Zhibek Zholy street, or "Silk Road" in Kazakh, giving new meaning to being "on the Silk Road". Almaty is really quite the modern city compared to the rest of Central Asia, with shopping centres and big supermarkets everywhere, as well as many parks and shaded tree-lined roads. It was here that we celebrated exactly one year on the road, by feasting on delicious Georgian food, perhaps the last time Georgian food will be this accessible as Kazakhstan is our last country in the former Soviet bloc. Like in Bishkek, the main language in Almaty is Russian, and Russian influence is clearly much stronger in Kazakhstan overall than in the other Central Asian countries. On hindsight, it would have been beneficial if we had put in more effort into learning Russian since we entered our first post-Soviet country (Georgia), but we had put that off in favour of learning the local Turkic languages in Central Asia (which we never did properly either), and now it is just too late.

Statue of Kazakh poet Abai in front of the Palace of the Republic in Almaty

Statue of Kazakh poet Abai in front of the Palace of the Republic in Almaty

Celebrating one year on the road with tasty Georgian food

Celebrating one year on the road with tasty Georgian food

We left Almaty along the Big Almaty Canal, and followed a nice small road along the canal for two days before turning off to Shelek. At times, the road reminded us of parts of Europe we cycled through one year ago: well-paved with very little traffic, lined with trees showing the colours of fall, with flat landscapes full of apple plantations.

Following the quiet, autumn coloured road along the Big Almaty Canal from Almaty to Shelek

Following the quiet, autumn coloured road along the Big Almaty Canal from Almaty to Shelek

Cowboys with their herd on the quiet road along the Big Almaty Canal between Almaty and Shelek

Cowboys with their herd on the quiet road along the Big Almaty Canal between Almaty and Shelek

After arriving in Shelek, we went out in the evening in search for food. After walking for almost an hour along the pitch-dark streets without finding any open restaurant selling anything more than shashlik, we finally stumbled on a busy cafe that looked like it was hosting a private event. We poked our heads in to ask if we could order food, and a friendly girl came out to help us. It turned out that her family had just ended a birthday celebration for her grandmother at the cafe and were heading home - and they invited us home with them to have our dinner there, an offer we accepted. What ensued was an extremely loud evening, with plates of food appearing from nowhere, the whole family asking us the same questions at the same time (and only the one girl translating for all), and all the (already drunk) men pouring us too many shots of vodka. We were apparently the first foreign guests in their home, and nobody seemed to be able to contain their excitement. Thankfully, we made our escape when the girl (whose name we unfortunately can't remember!) called a taxi for us back to our guesthouse.

The Uyghur family that spontaneously abducted us from a cafe in Shelek to eat at their home instead. Most of the family members now live in Almaty, but they had returned to Shelek to celebrate their grandmother's birthday.

The Uyghur family that spontaneously abducted us from a cafe in Shelek to eat at their home instead. Most of the family members now live in Almaty, but they had returned to Shelek to celebrate their grandmother's birthday.

We left Shelek along the brand new highway to the Chinese border at Khorgas, a road that has surprisingly little traffic. We were lucky to be able to go fast with good tailwind, as the road just goes straight across the flat, boring landscape and there was nothing to see. Suddenly, we were passed by a long convoy of cars with Singaporean-looking license plates and stickers that said "London to Singapore"! Two of the cars stopped at a rest stop just ahead of us, and we soon caught up with them. It turned out that they were on this year's "Autoventure" trip organised by the Automobile Association of Singapore, and they were driving from Almaty to Zharkent that day. Given the boring road, we decided to hitch a ride with them to Zharkent (and maybe to Singapore?!). We ended up staying in the same hotel with them and joining them for dinner, a Singaporean feast they had specially planned for their (and our) last night in Central Asia 😋.

Hitching a ride to Zharkent (or Singapore?) with the Autoventure convoy, an overland trip organised by the Automobile Association of Singapore that is driving from London to Singapore this year

Hitching a ride to Zharkent (or Singapore?) with the Autoventure convoy, an overland trip organised by the Automobile Association of Singapore that is driving from London to Singapore this year

We were treated to a fantastic Singaporean dinner by the Autoventure crew that picked us up on the road and gave us a ride to Zharkent

We were treated to a fantastic Singaporean dinner by the Autoventure crew that picked us up on the road and gave us a ride to Zharkent

The next day, we left separately from the Singaporean convoy as they expected a difficult border crossing with their cars and left very early. We caught up with them again and overtook them at the border, and finally bid farewell to Central Asia.