Blogspot was blocked through all of Kazakhstan. Odd that all the supposed restrictive and totalitarian countries we traveled through apparently bore the rumor-mongering website no grudge as it was accessible. Even in Turkmenistan, the country where lazy engineers of espionage had torn away portions of our hotel wall to plant a microphone tap, Blogspot came up and laid itself bare on the internet for all to read.
In fact, Kazakhstan, on the whole, proved to be much less easy to travel through than had been anticipated, but I’ll get to that.
Ten days ago found Elliot and myself sitting in a train carriage ripe with the smells and sounds of a moribund jungle. The sweat dripped off nearby passengers, pooled with our own and rippled on the floor under the tread of stalwart border guards and the pack of drug-sniffing dogs that accompanied them. The dogs, particularly the terriers, tended to swish through the sweat and the heavy fog of body odor, nosing under a seat here and a bathroom door there, darting through the haze like elusive jungle rodents. The condensation on the windows rolled down and plashed on the vinyl seats in a wet staccato. Once we started moving there was a slight breeze that we felt on our draining skin, all those pores of everyone on the train dilated and lapping up the cool night air at once, it was like being part of some gigantic organism, feeling its way through the milky edge of the Uzbek desert.
We met a grimy dawn at the Turkestan train station, a place so neglected by modern amenities that the peroshkis there went without potato, being nothing more than lumps of fried dough, like, as Elliot pointed out, the desperately poor ate in The Grapes of Wrath. I didn’t dare try them, for fear that between the sweat purge I had taken the night before, which had opened my body to a tingling singularity, and the darkling beads of oil, olestra and fat, gleaming like amber, like the stuff with which they coat fly paper that hung around the peroshki stand as wet and lambent shadows, I feared that to cross from one such extreme to another would surely be risking death, or at least a severe cramp.
I did have a delightful instant coffee though and a cigarette, a bit damp and jostled, but fine.
We were accompanied to the mosque complex from the train station by young man who was miraculously totally drunk by six am.
“At kuda ty?” he nettled out the question from the fetid, chlorine hell of a drunk’s binge mouth.
“America,” I responded. He didn’t answer as he had gone over to bitching about the marshutka driver’s attempt to make him put out his cigarette.
In the early morning sun Turkestan’s mosque complex was probably the most beautiful thing I have seen over the course of this entire trip. Dromedaries, rising from their hunches and shaking off the pale blue reflections of a Timurad lapis lazuli dome into the sienna dust of the cautious Ramadan desert.
Shymkent, a few hours down the road, was home to the worst meal I have ever had to endure. A peroshki garnished, or rather, strewn with green olives. As it had been so long since I had had anything that resembled protein I had decided to augment my pauper’s meal with something a little more substantial. This I paid for by the greatest clash in taste since Orange Juice and Toothpaste that fought its way down my alimentary canal and then lie bubbling with discontent in my stomach for several hours, all of which were spent aboard a bus that, again, wrung our pores bone dry.
We set up with Almaty’s premier couchsurfer, a self-described aging hippy who seemed more bemused than annoyed at the hordes of unwashed youth that had taken up residence in his apartment, helping themselves to founts of hot water in his shower before dropping down onto his once white carpet like shit from a petulant cat. At least that’s what Elliot and I did.
After a few days of doing absolutely nothing, or, rather, nothing while moving, which is totally different from, say, relaxing, we went up to the mountains that drag down into Almaty with two German girls who were staying with our permissible host. This, again, was incredibly beautiful; at the end of July I was able to stand beneath a clod of something like glacial till and ice that had been undermined by the loose waterfall that broke over the top of it. The mountains, dark, seethed with the silence of millennia above the vernal fields where we walked, making the greens heavier somehow, as if all the grass had been born of iron long ago.
We left Almaty a few days later to go see the fabled town of Dostoevsky’s exile, Semey. The bus ride to Semey, was 20 hours. As we had come to expect humiliation and agony to be part and parcel to these excursions, it seemed wise to drink a few beers and even have a few shots of vodka before boarding the nearly window-less, airconditioning-less bus. This plan worked great for Elliot, who has a bladder like a pop-tent, but this mistake literally brought me to my knees before the driver around two AM, imploring, begging him to stop the bus before something inevitably burst. I refused to drink anything the rest of the ride and, probably irreversibly damaged some of my internal organs by dehydrating them to such a degree, but, to not have to again endure the agony and the helplessness aboard a non-stop, bathroom-less bus was well worth it.
Back in Almaty, we decided to spend the night in the airport, not wanting to put out our gracious host another night, and, well, kind of anxious to leave after ten days. In the morning we awoke, uncertain about using our Peace Corps passports when going through customs as we had been told they would expire after 30 days of our Close Of Service date. We had backup passports, but worried that two passports might look suspicious, after all, there really wouldn’t be such to say.
“Well, I, uhh, worked with a government organization, well, not really, it’s more of an independent thing. So they gave me this special passport, that, although it says it expires in three’s years time has actually already expired. Why is the date incorrect? Uhh, well, it’s technically a government passport, oh wait look, I’ve got another one here. Why do I have two? Uhh…”
Luckily, it wasn’t a problem, at least the passports weren’t, the fact that we didn’t know that we had to register with the police after staying five days in Kazakhstan, however, was.
Of course, neither of us knew anything about this, or we probably would’ve set about getting registered on one of the numerous days when we just slunk around Almaty. So, although I was uncertain of my passport I walked up to the customs agent with a smile and a
“Dobrei utra,” I said, trying not to let the three hours of sleep I had gotten in the terminal make my voice sound too unpleasant.
“Hmmm,” was the non-committal reply given while the agent thumbed through my passport. A slip of paper dropped out, a slip of paper I didn’t even remember getting.
“Ohh, oops, must be some leftover piece of bureaucratic nonsense from Uzbekistan, let me just grab that since here in Kazakhstan such things are…”
“This is your registration, it needs to be stamped twice, yours is only stamped once, it needs to be stamped twice.”
“Oh, hmmm, coulda’ sworn that, the Lonely Planet, that is, the guide, said that when we arrived we were automatically…”
“Should be stamped twice, hmmm, you probably won’t fly today.” Here, as it would be with any traveler who’s thoroughly sick of a place and totally broke until s/he can pick up a money wire in Budapest, my heart fluttered, leapt up like a panicked hummingbird.
“I, uhhh, I didn’t know, I thought…please?” I don’t remember saying ‘please’ but I’m sure at some point it squeaked out in desperation. The agent left, he conferred with Elliot’s agent who was obviously pondering the same dilemma in Elliot’s similar lack of the much sought-after second stamp. They left, they came back, they made phone calls, they opened doors and closed them, throughout the whole ordeal my heart shook my ribs, my temples pulsed and contracted, my legs nearly shook with fright. What would it mean? Two missed flights, our luggage gone on ahead of us to Budapest, talking with the police for hours and above all, being stuck in Almaty longer with no money toting around my monstrous bag in the heat of the day, before eventually getting a princely sum sent to me to bribe the authorities, to buy another plane ticket, two of them. It was too much to contemplate. And then he returned.
“Ok, it’s ok, just get two stamps next time.”
“Oh, yes, SIR! Two Stamps! A whole passport loaded with them for you, all the stamps in the world if I could but bring them to you, my savior!” I thanked him all the ways I knew possible again and stumbled through security.
Elliot and I bought Champagne at the duty free. We chain-smoked until we got on our flight, thus ended our Central Asian trip.