Monday, August 10, 2015

On the Road: Kazakhstan

Old Republic

When I was a child, halfway across the world there existed a place called the Soviet Union. It was an imposing stretch of territory, where for decades, countless souls toiled under the red sun of communism. Then the USSR tried to take Afghanistan. That misstep precipitated its historic collapse and in a matter of 10 years the once mighty Soviet empire fragmented at its edges. New countries appeared, many of which were difficult for the average American to pronounce, and few would have known one place from another were the names not written on the map. But not me. Even at the time while I was a middle school student, I adored maps and gazed at them imagining what wonders each country had hidden away in its respective blotch of color. It was only a question of time until I began to find out.

I think Kazakhstan has been the 36th country I've visited. I say so with some doubt because the meaning of the word "visit" is open to interpretation. For example, does going only to an airport constitute a visit? Or how about spending a few hours in one of the cities? For me, I would say "no" to the first, and "yes" to the second. Along those lines of logic, I'm at 36. Number 35 happened to be another former Soviet republic--Kyrgyzstan. I should be writing about there now and not Kazakhstan, but my time in Kyrgyzstan is far from over. I'm kind of leapfrogging around Central Asia while using the latter as my base of operations, so after I finish seeing the country, I'll write about it in its entirety. As for now Kazakhstan's my priority, and with the order of my travel writing clarified, let's get to it.
National Flag

Kazakhstan is a big country (9th largest in the world). Its cities are sparse in number, separated by large distances, and considerably different depending on the region. In the south is Shymkent--nothing interesting--with Turkistan a little ways up and over. Turkistan has a storied history owing to its place on the Silk Road, a conduit along which came more than trade. Islam entered into the region via Arabs on military campaigns. Later its most prominent advocates were Turkic holy men. They spread religion in a more peaceful way which appealed to Central Asia's nomadic tribes. One such man named Yassawi gained favor in the Kazakh steppes by teaching a kind of folklore Islam. He eventually settled in the area and after his death, Tamerlane built a mausoleum in his honor. It still stands today and was why my friend Calvin and I visited the town.

The days were dry and hot in Turkistan, and we had no choice but to endure this unfavorable weather to see the sights. The first place we went to was an abandoned fort built at a major crossroad on the old Silk Road routes. It was in the middle of nowhere, very much in ruins, and had little to see other than bricks and mud walls. Our driver was the most interesting part of the excursion. A former boxer who had lost his left leg from the knee down, he could still operate a taxi using a cane that he'd duct taped to the brake and moved with his hand. For a crippled man the guy was high spirited and friendly. This meant he was also talkative, and though I understood very little of his Russian, I did my best to hold up a conversation. As we were cruising along the driver stopped on the highway and bought watermelons freshly picked from nearby fields. Later on, after we'd explored the old fort, he carved one up with a knife from his car. We sat and ate in the shade of a gazebo while dust swirled and the occasional train barreled past on nearby tracks. The sweet, juicy pieces of watermelon were an absolute delight, and moreover, the highlight of the visit. I became terribly bloated from overeating--but in a good, satisfying way.

That same day Calvin and I went to the Yassawi Mausoleum. It was late in the afternoon and shades of pink graced its walls. After entering, we walked around the building, viewing it from every angle. This gave us the chance to take plenty of photos of the impressive, blue-domed structure and we remained until dusk. Seeing how the sun set late in summer we didn't start on dinner until around 9:30pm. The restaurant we visited was one of the finest in town, complete with an outdoor patio and dance floor in the middle. We spotted two Dutch girls from our hotel and joined their table. They'd already finished their food and moved on to beers. I had one too. It wasn't enough and I ordered more. Then, right as I was starting to feel the effects of the alcohol, the restaurant closed, as did all other places in town. To continue the fun we resorted to crashing a wedding reception at a banquet hall (only after asking the doorman if it was ok to enter). Many of the guests seemed happy to have us. We danced with them and drank shots of vodka, but while this was happening I noticed some ugly stares from a handful of the older guests. It was understandable considering how we'd arrived uninvited and were underdressed for the occasion. The men had suits on and I was wearing only a t-shirt and shorts. Eventually, a woman asked us to leave. We said, "no problem," and ducked out, a little embarrassed by the situation.
Sauran Ruins
Watermelon Anyone?
Happy Camel
Yassawi Mausoleum
Site Placard
Dusk Approaches
Friendly Kazakhs
Sunrise Over Lake Balkash

No discussion of Kazakhstan would be complete without mention of Sacha Baron Cohen's 2006 film Borat. The movie features Cohen playing the part of the titular Kazakh who visits America to create a documentary for his compatriots back home, hence the subtitle: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. What sets Borat apart is that besides a few key actors, most the people who appeared in the movie were unaware that the premise of the documentary was a ruse, and that they were in fact taking part in a comedy which drew laughs at their expense. A well received film, Borat succeeded in putting Kazakhstan on the map for the collective American psyche. But it wasn't done in good taste. After being in Kazakhstan, I can say for certain that Cohen's portrayal didn't resemble a Kazakh man in the slightest.  All the cultural quips he made were fabrications, particularly his ongoing phobia of Jews and how they were demonized by Kazakhs. And during the scenes where he was supposed to be speaking Kazakh, he instead used Hebrew, while his assistant Azamat spoke Armenian. As if that weren't enough, Cohen acted out loads of absurd scenes, and for good measure, a few scatological moments. The result was hilarity at its best. But as a cultural piece Borat provides about as much insight into Kazakhstan as Dragon Ball Evolution does for Japan. So it's understandable that the people of Kazakhstan became upset when the one thing foreigners began associating with their country had zero to do with them.

Let's not forget the Romanians either. At the beginning of the film, Borat gives a tour of his home of Kuzcek, introducing his sister as a prostitute and the local mechanic as the town abortionist. Kuzcek, of course, doesn't exist. Filming instead took place outside of  Kazakhstan in the Romanian village of Glod. So Cohen falsely represented yet another group of people and they weren't happy about it. Some of the villagers went as far as to file an unsuccessful lawsuit against the actor. But the real joke was not on the Romanians or Kazakhs. It was on Americans. In a country where 40% of working-age adults have a college degree, Cohen showed how ignorant Americans were when it came to their understanding of Central Asia. I for one hadn't known anything at the time of Borat's release, save for the fact that Kazakhstan was home to the Soviet space program, and that missions were still launched from the country's Baikonur Cosmodrome, Eurasia's equivalent of Cape Canaveral. I'd also read that it was the setting of the Kyzylorda Massacre, where in 1924, Bolshevik Cossacks rounded up some 400 hundred children, raped and tortured them, then feasted on their flesh in a manner that terrified the local nomads. It was all an attempt at psychological warfare, and for the most part successful, because the Russians soon made large territorial gains in the region.

American or not, you likely believed what I just wrote. The Kyzylorda Massacre never happened. It was a fabrication about a place you know little about--its history even less so. Does this mean you are ignorant or an idiot? Not at all. The world is a vast place and it's impossible to be entirely knowledgeable of its geography, varied cultures, colorful histories, etc. Kazakhstan is but an example that illustrates this. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is another. Really, how much does the typical Westerner know about the country? Well, here's some facts. The population is fast approaching 80 million. Copper and cobalt have become it's principal exports. The capital in Kinshasa. I looked it up now on Wikipedia. But what I already knew, was that the Belgium monarchy instituted slavery there between 1882 and 1908. Rubber was the impetus behind this human right's violation. Global demand for it had skyrocketed towards the end of the 19th century and the Congo basin became the last place where a European country practiced slavery on a large scale, a fact made scant mention of in Belgian history books (if included at all). And that's one story I didn't fabricate. When it came to light, the resulting scandal became the undoing of King Leopold II's reputation, and moreover, it damaged the image of European colonialism throughout the world. Anyhow, my point here is that people don't know much about far off places so it's easy to fool them into believing anything, which was what Cohen did in Borat. In truth, he could have filmed the movie in a dozen other Western countries and the result would have been similar.
Film Poster

I've already made mention of Calvin. He's another traveler who I met through I put up a general travel notice and he replied saying that he had a similar time frame for Central Asia. So we met in the Kyrgyz' capital of Bishkek and then decided to team up and strike out across three countries: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Things have gone well since then.

What's so peculiar about our travel partnership is that Calvin and I are very different from one another. He is neat and organized; I am sloppy and more of a just wing it type. Calvin prefers seafood and avoids things like mutton and cheese. I'm the complete opposite there. But perhaps the biggest divide between us is that I drink and dance, and he does neither. I usually end up doing double of both to compensate. Ok. That's a lie. I party for the love of partying. Yet it fills a gap that Calvin couldn't do on his own. And in ways like this we compliment one another. For example, it helps too that he has a smart phone. How I'd gotten by without one while traveling is now beyond me. Offline google maps with GPS positioning alone is a godsend. No longer must I keep asking for directions like I had before. Yet we still ask people something when unclear about what's going on, and in that regard Calvin is more proactive than I am. I suppose I'm a bit shy when it comes to approaching strangers. Either that or I prefer to figure out a solution on my own.

Anyhow, when traveling there's a lot of downtime. I'm referring to long bus rides, a rest in a park, idle talk after a meal at a restaurant. When me and Calvin are alone like this, he makes for a good conversationalist. Much of it has to do with how his life experiences are entirely removed from mine. Calvin grew up in a large urbanized city, himself a Singaporean of Chinese descent. As a Hispanic, my childhood was spent in San Diego in a quiet neighborhood surrounded by nature. His background is in banking, mine in teaching. What it amounts to is us seeing the world through very different lenses. In Singapore life is about status and getting a high paying job to lead a comfortable lifestyle, and in some respects Calvin buys into that. For me though, a job is not a solid indicator of a person's worth or purpose. Quite to the contrary, I see the entire working-to-live-scheme as the trappings of a society which guarantees nothing in return for our compliance. It's a sad and mostly unescapable situation, but as with anything else, if there's a will there's a way out. I think Calvin too has a sense of this. The problem is breaking free from the rigidness of the Singaporean mold is no simple task. I believe he's still trying though. Rather than build up material wealth Calvin's investing in personal experience and the lessons learned through travel. Then again, I may be reading too much into his behavior.

The real focus here should be on how happy I am to finally have a long-term travel buddy. In the past I had to confront the world alone. Now I do it with Calvin. Aside from having someone to talk to avoid the general ennui associated with single travel, I also share costs which saves us both money. A taxi ride is a good example of this. Instead of paying the fare alone, we split it 50-50. Or at a hotel, by staying in a double room, we end up paying less per person than if we were to each stay in a single room. In a developed country like Kazakhstan our partnership resulted in some serious savings. Calvin is also more of a haggler than I am (probably because of his Chinese blood) and this too meant I was spending less money in the long run. With an app called Monefy, he keeps tabs on our expenses and knows who owes who what down to the smallest denomination. Little wonder he enjoyed working before as a personal banker.


The capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, goes by the most literal name possible. In the Kazakh language it means "the capital." Formerly known as Akmola it was renamed in 1998 after President Nursultan Nazarbayev made it Kazakhstan's new capital, moving the location 1200km north of where it'd been before in Almaty. His reasoning was that the region is less prone to earthquakes. In reality though, he needed to assert more control over the northern part of the country which was composed predominately of ethnic Russians. In the following years city planners got to work erecting flashy buildings beginning with the Bayeterek Tower and then other modern marvels that stretched out along a concourse in the city center. Cranes continue to piece together more and more buildings, most of which are laden in blue or gold window panes. The money comes from the proceeds of Kazakhstan's oil and gas industries. Rich in natural resources, the country has buyers lining up to pay good money for a cut of the export supply, Russia, Italy and China to name a few.

Business is good in Astana. In the years since becoming the capital, it's seen its population quadruple. Even so, the city still has under a million people, so while I visited I didn't feel I was in a bustling metropolis. But like a large metropolis it was expensive. A dorm bed in hostel cost Calvin and me $14 each and we were lucky to find a sit down meal under $5. Having to deal with these prices it didn't take long for us to go over our travel budget. However, rather than worry about money we accepted our situation and made the most of the visit. First we saw the sights, including the Khan Shatyr , a shopping mall housed within a giant tent. At the very top was a beach-like pool with sand brought in from the Maldives. We didn't go in but were still impressed it existed in such a place. I later read that the facility is maintained at a constant 35°C year round. Considering that Astana can drop to -50°C, the beach certainly provides a nice reprieve from the cold in winter. Later we walked down the concourse and went up the Bayeterek Tower, a symbol of the nation that is on many of the currency notes. When President Nazarbayev held a ceremony for its grand opening, he had a print of his palm created for the occasion. Now hundreds of people line up daily to place their hand in the spot and get their picture taken. I too lined up not knowing what for, then became disappointed to find it'd been for this reason.

With Astana being an expensive place, Calvin and I had the good sense to put in requests on beforehand. Our efforts led to us staying with a Polish guy for three of the four nights we spent in the city. We arrived at his one bed room apartment, and since space was limited, Clavin and I used our mats to sleep on. The host, Wictor, told us he'd moved to Astana to do an internship at the Polish Embassy. In university his major had been political science and he knew a great deal about the geopolitical situation in Central Asia. We discussed much over beer and vodka. I learned that Kazakhstan is divided up into regions dominated by members from three different groups. In the north and east are the Middle Tribes who are the most urbanized. Then in the south there are the Greater Tribes who trace their lineage back to history's most influential Turkic and Mongol khans. Lastly, in the west exist the Smaller Tribes. For ethnic Kazakhs a good family name can hold more importance than wealth, a tribalist aspect of society that influences the attitudes of people in their every day lives. But no where is it more felt than in politics and military postings. President Nazarbayev, for example, came from a modest background in terms of money, but he hailed from one of the Greater Tribes and could still rise to the highest ranks of government.
Bayterek Tower
Yes, I do
Wictor, Calvin and Me
Office Building and Statue
View from Bayterek Tower
City Skyline
Orthodox Catholic Artwork
From Outside
Central Asia's Largest Mosque
Doves of Peace
Survival Russian

Once in Central Asia, one thing that becomes painfully clear is the lack of English proficiency among locals. Few people in the big cities speak it, and in the countryside it's near non-existent. In place of English, they speak Russian as a second language. In urban areas some even speak it as their first and are limited in their ability to use Kazakh or other regional languages. I'd heard as much before heading in and decided to learn some Russian to better communicate. I began with the Cyrillic writing system while still in India. I wrote the characters into a small notebook and their phonetic pronunciations. Then came the stock phrases: "My name is Phil," "I'm from America," and so on. Weeks later when I arrived in Central Asia, the phrases did me little good. Who cares if someone knows what my name is, when the my real priority is figuring out how to catch a bus from the airport to town?

Learning Russian at even a conversational level was never going to happen, and I knew it. But as the weeks passed I picked up what was needed to haggle at a market, order food from a restaurant, tell a taxi driver where I wanted to go, buy a bus ticket, and more. Survival Russian equated to this. And still it was not enough. I realized there was always something more to learn. For one, I felt a genuine desire to explain myself to locals--to let them know who I was and why I'd come to their country. Language was the main way to get that information across. However, the barrier I had to overcome couldn't have been worse. Russian is nothing like English. It has Slavic roots with words that could mean anything. Moreover, the grammar is complex, in that verbs conjugate differently depending on the subject of a sentence and its tense. Each verb ends up with over a dozen forms. Even nouns have different suffixes to signify their purpose in a sentence and how they match up with prepositions. I couldn't be bothered to memorize all the rules, so I approximated as best I could, speaking with crude, limited grammar.

What amazes me is how effective my Russian caveman talk has been. If I were to say in English, "In America, like pizza. Here no pizza. I sad," I would come across as a little strange, but still understood. Now lets make it more complex: "Before this two year in America, I have wife. It no good. Now no wife. Later, new wife, maybe. No problem." Again, the meaning is still clear. And these are things I can say in Russian. Throw in some added gestures and even more information becomes conveyable. The problem is having the vocabulary. Had I been smart I could have focused on learning words from the beginning but I took a lazy approach. I just made it a point to write a few words every now and then. On the upside I still fared much better at learning than most the tourists I met. Perhaps they thought the prospect too overwhelming and didn't make much an effort to begin with. Calvin was this way. And he had me to rely on. The funny thing is he looks very Central Asian, so of the two of us, locals often addressed him first. At the same time Calvin did download a Russian language package for Google Translate on his phone. As an extension of that Google could use his phone's built in camera to translate text in real time, showing the English on the phone's screen, but only when we had an Internet connection. Technology. It never fails to amaze.
Posted Notices
Sometimes English is Best

I'll be honest. I have a serious love-hate relationship with facebook. To begin with, a social network of any kind provides only a glimpse into the lives of people, one that is distorted by what users choose for others to see. By its very nature the site is largely unauthentic in how profiles are presented. Then you have the shameless self promoters, the whiners, the attention-whores, the agenda seekers and so on. Because users are able to hide behind a screen, it's easy to let it bring out the worst in their tendencies. I too am guilty at times, I admit. But for the most part, if I have nothing of interest to share I refrain from posting. So I upload photos every other week, leave status updates even less frequently, and sometimes chat with friends. The chatting is done privately on account of me feeling it's not anyone else's business what I discuss. That's not to say I'm chatting about lurid, secretive things, but rather, I think most people would not find any of my discussions relevant, so why make them open to the public? To my dismay, some people choose to do this anyway, spouting out all manner of things in long comment threads.

Anyhow, the thing I find most annoying about facebook is the frequency with which I check it. I'm traveling now and can't always use the Internet, but when I do have good access, I'm on the site 10 times a day or more. It's mostly me lurking around without saying anything. And what for? To see what other people are doing, to click on the articles friends have linked on their profile, to pass the time. In this regard I suppose I'm the same as everyone else. I only wish I could take a more detached approach and limit my usage. It would free me up to focus on more creative tasks such as writing, taking photos, or simply interacting with others--face to face. Above all else, that's what gets me. How I'm surrounded by living, breathing people, but rather than talk to them, I'm plugged into the Internet. And it's worse considering how at this time in my life these people are interesting backpackers from around the world. At this moment I'm at a hostel and there're Israelis, Germans, Czechs and so forth. But earlier I was using facebook (among other sites), closed off to everyone, the same as now.

It's not all bad. By using facebook I can stay connected with people regardless of where I am. This is probably why I'm so active now. Being on the road is more difficult than people think. At times I feel as if I have no home, no roots--I'm simply flotsam on an ever shifting sea--and then I log into facebook and see a message from a friend and my day brightens. Or it could be that I see a photo of someone doing well. Maybe they got married, had a positive job interview, met a girl. I've heard before that facebook evokes feelings of jealousy and inadequacy seeing how some people think their lives don't measure up. But for me, those feelings are either entirely absent, or merely minor and fleeting. The truth is, I'm happy for others when their life is going well, and conversely, I empathize if things are bad. I just don't like it when people try too hard to impress, or worse, drag others into their hole of self loathing and misery. At any rate, facebook is what it is, and I believe for better or worse it's here to stay.


The largest city in Kazakhstan is its former capital Almaty. Rising high on the city's southern horizon, the peaks of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains reach over 3000m. Many of which have glaciers flowing between them, and since it was something to do, Calvin and I went up by gondola to take a closer look. The route had three stages. We had to get off each time to transfer to another gondola, and at the end a grassy valley straddled the uppermost peaks on the one side, while opposite it, a sharp descent down offered an equally impressive view. Some families had arrived with food to have a picnic. I noticed two young girls picking wildflowers and took photos. Their father waved me over, then offered me a chunk of horse meat followed by a shot of vodka. The alcohol I didn't want but still accepted out of politeness. The moment I threw it back, it caught in my throat. I let out a deathly cough. Tears welled in my eyes. I heaved for air. The Kazakh man laughed and made to pour another. "No thank you," I said in Russian. One shot was enough.

In a big city like Almaty, Calvin and I needed to couchsurf again to save on expenses. We ended up at the home of two Kazakh men, Sergey and Stanislav. European in appearance their names matched their look. It wasn't unusual for Kazakhstan. People of the sort were quite common throughout Central Asia, especially in the cities, the descendants of settlers that had moved in after the Russians took control of the region. At any rate, our hosts had a room ready for our use, prepared a nice dinner and talked with us over tea. They also had two cats, including a kitten named Tom. As adorable as he was, Tom had a bad attitude and didn't like being held for long. But he still craved attention. He would come up and paw at my feet while we sat around the kitchen table. Speaking of which, one night I prepared Mexican food for my hosts. First we had to go to the supermarket to buy ingredients. I got chicken breast, vegetables, and even found sour cream. As for the tortillas, I had to improvise. I used a kind of flat bread they sold in large sheets, then cut out circles using a bowl as a template. Lastly, for hot sauce I found some cheap Chinese stuff in a plastic bottle. Though the taste was completely off the tacos were better with it than without.

Some 150km east of Almaty where the mountains give way to dry, endless steppes, we went to a national park called Sharyn Canyon. The locals referred to it as the Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan. I can't say it lived up to the title, but it was still worth visiting. A shared taxi got us as far as the park's entry road. At this junction we met a tour guide from Belarus. He was guiding a caravan of Germans through Central Asia and had set out early to do some reconnaissance of the area. We asked if he could give us a lift to the canyon's trailhead and he was happy to take us in his van. On the 10km dirt road, we then came across a pair of Russian women that had given up trying to walk, and in they came. After we made it to the trailhead, we hiked down a path that followed the canyon floor. To both sides layered sandstone rose in all manner of shape. Rocks had fallen here and there, and sparse vegetation added to the scenery. About an hour in we came to a river. There were some Kazakh tourists playing in the water and taking photos. Two of the younger ones spoke good English. They were happy to meet an American and said they wanted to travel to my city one day. I've heard the same before knowing it's an impossibility for the locals. But Kazakhstan is different. Contrary to what Westerners think it's a developed country with people who have money to go overseas.

On a final note, I was surprised that any Kazakh with a car could double as a taxi driver. This was most common in Almaty, and when Calvin and I needed a ride it didn't take long for a random person to pull over for us. Of course we had to pay to go anywhere, but it still seemed strange getting places in this manner. Everyone did it though, including single young females late at night. In America no one in their right mind would get into a car with a stranger, especially women. So I guess it goes to show how safe Kazakhstan is. I for one never felt threatened while in the country. There was only the problem of the police. From what I'd read on the Internet they were apt to harass foreign tourists for money. But I never got extorted in this way. Perhaps it was because I avoided any policemen I saw, often ducking into a side street if necessary. They were easy to spot thanks to their large soviet-era style hats.
Gondola Ride Up
Hungry Butterfly
Plenty of Wildflowers
Almaty's Zenkov Cathedral
Taco Stuff
Posing for a Photo
Sharyn Canyon
Lakeside Fun

For our final days in Kazakhstan, Calvin and I decided to do some camping in the mountains, and after contemplating our options, we went to Lake Issyk 90km southwest of Almaty. Due to its close proximity to the city the lake was a popular weekend spot, and when we arrived on a Saturday, a hundred or so people were already scattered around the shore. While searching for a place to camp we found a group of youngsters who had already put up tents. They said hi and invited us to join their circle. Half the group was Kazakh. The rest were expats working in Almaty with one guy from India and the others out of Europe. We sat drinking tea, playing cards and then helped start up the grill. In Kazakhstan shashlik is how the locals like their meat. It's basically chunks or raw meat on skewers cooked over an open flame. At restaurants it's not uncommon for workers to use a hair dryer to get the coals hot, but at our campsite we didn't have this luxury so the task involved a lot of blowing. To go with the meat the group had brought watermelon, bread, candies and most importantly, beer. It was good ole Kazakh hospitality. They shared everything and asked nothing in return.

As night drew near, we made a campfire and gathered around to tell spooky stories. One of the local girls swore that her cousin had seen a ghost during a visit. The ghost was of a young bride standing on the water. The way the story went, a family had been holding a wedding at the lake on July 7, 1963, a fateful day when a huge mud flow came sweeping down from the mountains and took Issyk Dam with it. Hundreds more died as the disaster spread downhill to Issyk Town. It wasn't until several years after that the area was repaired and people returned to enjoy the beautiful nature. Anyhow, I too wanted to share a story but didn't know any except for yanagi onna, a Japanese folktale about a woman who died beneath a willow tree. According to the tale, whenever the wind now blows through one, a person can hear her crying. I don't think anyone found any of this scary, but at least I could share some Japanese culture. Later I was trying to explain about marshmallows and how in American we like to roast them on a stick when around a fire. At that point the Europeans had gone to bed, and the remaining Kazakhs had no idea what I was talking about. "They're white, mushy candy things that you can kind of burn," I tried to explain again. "You know? In the shape of a cylinder." Such words failed to make the picture any clearer in their heads and I gave up.

The following morning the group rolled up their tents and sleeping bags to take them to the parking lot and put in their cars. Me and Calvin, who were staying another night, left our stuff in place. But it wasn't yet time to say goodbye. We had it in mind to take a hike, and conveniently enough, a park ranger agreed to guide us to the site of a cave. We first made our way up a river valley that fed into the lake. Along the trail we saw wildflowers and raspberry bushes, then came to a tall barrier built over the river. The park ranger explained that it was there to weaken a future mud flow and prevent a repeat of the 1963 disaster. To get to the cave we needed to cross on a shoddily constructed catwalk. I felt a bit of vertigo looking down at the welded poles and wide gaps beneath my feet. On the opposite side our trail vanished between trees and thick undergrowth. "Now no way through," the ranger said, and back we turned without seeing the cave. I wasn't disappointed. The hike had been a lovely outing, though afterwards, I was sad to say goodbye to our new friends. In the afternoon I decided to go for a swim in the lake. When I came out I met another group of Kazakhs. They too gave us more food than we could eat, and one of the guys--already loaded up on vodka--offered to take me hunting for deer later in the week. I politely declined. Once it got dark Calvin and I retreated to our tent to watch movies. The trip to the lake would have ended perfectly had I not swallowed a bit of the water while swimming earlier. Only afterwards did I notice some brown foam floating on the surface, and sure enough, I awoke the next day with an upset stomach. By noon I was scrambling for the nearest toilet. Oh, the woes of the traveler's life.
Issyk Lake
Communist Graffiti
Card Game
Playing with Campfire
Across the Barrier
Pretty Flowers
In Conclusion

Calvin's and my stay in Kazakhstan was a short one--only two weeks. I might have stuck around longer had my passport allowed it, but my entry stamp gave only 15 days and an extension would have required a proper paid visa. It was probably for the best we left sooner than later. Traveling in Kazakhstan had cost much more than expected. So from Issyk Lake we returned directly to Bishkek in adjacent Kyrgyzstan. It was right opposite the border from Kazakhstan yet everything was immediately cheaper. What a relief, we thought and breathed easy knowing our cash would stretch further. We were also happy to return to the same hostel we had stayed at before with its nice garden and good wi-fi connection.

If I have any lasting impression of Kazakhstan its that the country is large and mostly flat. For example, on our 20-hour bus ride from Astana to Almaty the view to either side was of yellow steppes interrupted only by the occasional rise of mountains in the distance. It did not change until at the very end in the greener south. Anyhow, these were the same steppes the Mongols had crossed en route to their great conquests of the13th century. Without any natural barriers to block their passage they wreaked havoc as far as the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Over the centuries Kazakhstan has seen several such empires rise and fall, and each has left a lasting mark ending with the Soviets. Now that the country is independent, where it goes from here is anyone's guess. Blessed with natural resources it would seem a bright future lies on the horizon but government corruption and strong traditions stand in the way of progress. Only time will tell.
Cows on the Steppes