Wednesday, August 21, 2013

This is Kazakhstan

We race through the night under the stars. Everything is shaking. There is a stink of sheep under us. We lose our truck drivers, out of sight. In about 30 kilometers a paved roads starts. It will continue all the way to Benyeu.
the cars speed up to 90km/h. The sensation is unbelivable. We are flying under the full moon.
In the city they separated us into two cars. I am a little suspiscious but Ilona is allright. She comfirms she's allright. Ok then; I hope this isn't a second mistake.
Our drivers are all tough guys. They carry a gun in case they're attacked because they also carry money. Each of them is fluent in martial arts. Seriously, don't fuck with the Kazakh, don't try to manipulate them. These people eat a russian for lunch and an armenian for dinner. Don't be confused by the slanty eyes, these guys aren't obediant chinese.
They like to make jokes, to test us. You have to keep a face. As we saw on the border, the Kazakh have a very well developped sense of humour. They don't offer anything as turkish, armenians, even georgians, they wait for us to be prepared to pay for it. They expect a fair behaviour. Then they give.
This way, they invite us for lunch. No need for unnecessary politeness: "If I don't want to invite you then I wouldn't help you. So be quiet and eat"
When a Kazakh says "be quiet", it means be quiet. It doesn't mean more or less. It isn't an attack. They tell what they think. Briefly and directly.
They ask us smart questions. Why are we doing this, what is our goal. They nod on the reply, it makes sense to them. They will help us.
I think they like us.
"Why are you just sitting there? Take a photo of that camel! Do you have camels in your country? No. So take a photo of that camel!"
This way of communicating without any packaging throws you off balance sometimes. But we learn. You have to be strong, give in to reasonable demands, reject the unreasonable ones. It works the other way around. They expect to be hospitalable to us but we are expected to say what we need. If we can't express ourselves then to hell with us, they don't read minds.
At nightfall, we slept in a a village more than 100km after Benyeu. So fast. We slept in a tent in front of the house.
"What the fuck do you think do you think you are doing here?", says the house owner. He is joking of course, testing us, but for a time, I could hear myself breathe.
We got water because we asked for water, we got breakfest because we asked for tea. We didn't get a shower because we didn't ask and our newly found frinds were amazed what pigs we are not to ask for a shower when there is one inside.
The tea is amazing. It's a new kind of tea. They pour cold milk in a bowl, they complete it with tea and then pour boiling water inside. It is delicious. I can't get enough of it which is fortunate because they drink it over and over.
We start to connect with our newly found Kazakh. They are running a sheep business. They breed them in Atyrau and sell them in Aktau. They are a big happy family, tough as hell but smily faces. The youngest one is 21 years old and knows how to say "je t'aime" in french. In Kazakhstan me and Ilona are brother and sister, it makes us laugh. And it's not far from the truth as I said earlier.
I can't feel completely confortable with them. Something about them is dangerous, something throws me off balance. I kind of have trust in them though. Maybe I just feel too soft compared to these people.
Yermo is asking why I didn't sleep with any georgian girls. He also asked about how do we make sex in europe. He just tries to test us, he's a sweet guy otherwise.
He brings us to Dossor where a small but direct road goes directly to Aktobe without taking a huge detour through Oral.
If we catch a car there, he says, we'll be there extremely quick. we also get some food for the road. It's some delicious potato fried tingys. We eat all of them for lunch. We hitchhike about 20 kilometers in the direction of Aktobe but then the roads gets awful and empty. Plus, people are warning us about this region, not to stay at night. Ilona is getting a little upset, I don't know why. She gets this ironic smile indicating that any minute she will explode. And of course "nothing's wrong".
I get the path of deadly trinity is psychologically hard, I just hope we will make it.
We decide to turn around, we hitchhike back. The guy goes directly to Atyrau. He says that here, everybody belongs to a mafia. When I ask him what mafia he belongs to, he just laughs. He says if they catch a guy, they might rob you and beat you. A girl is safe. They have some ethics. If I travel wtth a girl, I should be safe. The amount of should probably depends on the amount of vodka these people drink. But against all stereotypes we haven't seen too much alcohol in Kazakhstan. Not a drop actually.
From Atyrau we get several more lifts towards Oral. A lot of people warn us to leave this region: Bandits, kidnappings, whatever.
A family going in the opposite direction stops for us two times. They beg us not to sleep outside, to ask someone to put a tent in their garden. They go and find us a cardboard with the city Oral written on it: "This might help you but please, whatever you do, don't stay outside at night".
The desert looks peaceful, I don't know where the danger comes from. But we've got so many warnings that something must be true.
We decide that if we sleep there, we'll walk as far in the desert as we can until we're hidden by the horizon. Cobras and scorpions are less dangerous than people.
Sagindik, a father in his fifties turned around to pick us up. He's calm, kind, with a sense of humour and you feel the Kazakh direct way of communication. No bullshit. Even though he is in his fifties, we don't feel the generation gap. We talk a lot, in russian, I feel like we are having a connection, I trust that guy.
"Do you need a shower?" he asks.
This could sound offensive in a lot of different situation but our answer is clear and without artifice: Yes!
Our skin is greasy and full of dust, we still smell of sheep and my fingers are dried to the bone. He drives us to a river. It's beautiful. It's reall wide yet not deep. I can almost cross from one side to the other without losing ground.
Ilona slowly goes into the water. She has this expression on her face, ready to burst.
"So far so good but if we talk about it, yeah, I'll explode"
Ok, I'm letting that go. Maybe this is about Armenia again, maybe she wants to return there. Or maybe, after 3 months, I have started to annoy her. Time will tell.
Sagindik takes us home to eat something. Oh my gosh the food is delicious! We eat horse for the first time! Yeah here people eat horse meat and whatever it's so good, Ilona is a little taken aback but I am too busy eating to think about what I'm eating. Butter also is amazing, I eat it like cream, loads of it. And a million other things I have never seen before. I want to eat them all!!!
And tea, oh my god their tea is great, I won't survive in europe, I have to keep making it when I return home. Kazakh tea with milk.
The family is composed of Sarabanu, his wife, a teacher of Kazakh literature.
"Do you know some interesting Kazakh authors?"
"Yeah, Nazerbaiev"
"Your president? Really? Did he write something of note?"
"Yeah. The constitution."
When I tell you the Kazakh have a sense of humour. They reckon it's a democracy though. Nobody bothers you in these endless steppes.
We meet Shamara, the mother. She doesn't like me much but she likes Ilona. He has a son and a daugter. She is as beautiful as it is possible for a woman to be. She is Nata, style, asian version, slightly more photogenic, borderline perfection.
She doesn't talk much. She is a doctor, an epidemologist. Sounds wicked. Their son is 4 years old, he doesn't talk. Sometimes he speaks words of english. It is very strange, the parents are helpless, no one knows what happened and what to do.
Shamara sees my friendship bracelets, I have five of them now. She asks me if I am some kind of shaman, maybe I can do something. This reminds me of Alexandra David-NĂ©el who used this lie tons of times to get to Tibet. But no, I am not a shaman, sorry, just friendship bracelets. Pretty powerful ones I might add but still.
Ilona says he probably has Autism. It can be diagnosed at 2 years of ages but where can you find a competent person to handle it in the steppes of west Kazakhstan?
"He lives in another world". Babushka isn't shoked or anything, she accepts it quietly and with pride. She is a proud woman.
Sagindik takes us to the lake. He reckons we must see it and he is right, he is so right. I have rarely seen something so beautiful. Crystal clear water with crystals of salt converging into the endless and calm surface of the salt lake. The sunset reflects on the water in a slightly orange shade. Orange, that sounds familiar and for the first time I really miss Nata. I kind of wish she could see this.
Lake with sunset

I wonder what she's doing, what is she feeling. It's so strange to wonder about other people's states of mind, it's so far from our imagination. I wonder what Orianne is doing. I wonder how is Claire, I wonder how Pedro is organising his trip to Iceland. This lake takes me far away.
Soon, we return. We have a room, we have our privacy. The Kazakh don't force us into ridiculous room separations because we are of different genders like it is in Armenia. And we take a shower! Actually they don't have a shower, they have a sauna. This is such a luxury. We are desperate for a shower and we get all this. First time I see a sauna!
Ilona plays the traditional guitar a little. Shamaran, the grandmother who doesn't like me says: "what are you doing just sitting there, don't you see how wonderfully Ilona plays? Take a picture!"
So I take pictures of her and of Ayem too. Then, by a miracle, Sagindik says he has internet. This is our first aquaintance with uncensored internet since Armenia. It feels weird but it is more than necessary. I have a ton of blog posts to add, I write them on the way into my computer, waiting for the ever rare wifi.
Weird thing I just thought about Nata, she has written to me and what she writes doesn't reassure me. She will attempt something very difficult, at least in the first few days. Actually maybe she has already started. She is one of the most resourceful person I know, nevertheless; I have the same impression as if she had left me climb Damavand. But I don't think I could have done anything in this case, it is beyond my control. Whatever people say or have said about Nata, she is brave. I think this trip isn't one incredible story, it is a web of incredible stories and we are just one of them. So god speed Nata, I really bealieve in you.
By the way, Kazakhstan radio is tune to frequency number 15.