Saturday, 4 June 2016

A Most Hospitable Place

Kazakhstan has come and gone and we're in Kyrgyzstan now.  A place where I never imagined myself being.  A place where, before we started planning this trip, I'm quite sure I couldn't place on a map, name the capital city or even spell, yet here we are!  But first, let me talk a bit more about Kazakhstan...

I didn't have many expectations of Kazakhstan before getting there.  I knew that our route through the country was short and that our time there would be quick.  If I'm being honest, I had kind of thought of Kazakhstan as just a means of getting to the Pamir Highway.  Actually the only real thought I had was that the food was going to take a serious nose dive from the tasty treats we'd been used to in China.  How wrong I was.  The food was delicious and varied.  And so far in Kyrgyzstan we haven't been disappointed either.  The beauty of the countryside in Kazakhstan is hard to fathom, at least the small part that we went through anyway. The huge open spaces, the towering mountains, the quietly grazing herds of animals and the lack of too much human intervention into the natural world immediately brings with it such a sense of calm.  Being in Kazakhstan just felt good.  It felt relaxing.  It was a world away from the modern stresses of life, as we've come to know it, in the west.  The air was fresh, the sun was warm and I could actually feel my body and mind relaxing and slowing down.  Despite all this though, for us, it was the the people we encountered along the way that really made Kazakhstan the place it was.

At the end of the last post I eluded to a day we had in a small town called Teskensu.  With rain on the way we were looking for somewhere to eat and hopefully avoid the worst of it.  A man on the street motioned us towards a small cafe/eatery and in we went.  There were five middle aged women inside, all sitting around one table, two of whom worked there and three that were just socialising.  We motioned we'd like something to eat, tried to get across that we didn't mind, what and next thing we knew we were being served up a feast.  Then all hell broke loose as the 5 of them crancked up the music and started dancing.  We, stupidly, thought it was for our benefit but then I noticed a bottle or two of vodka under their table and it all became a bit clearer.  When we'd finished eating they called us over and offered us a shot which we readily accepted.  I can't say vodka shots would be up there on my favourite things to drink but we figured it'd be rude to decline.  One shot led to two and things snowballed from there.  Next thing we knew they'd invited us to stay the night and we were all busy swapping Whats App details and showing photos of our families to each other.  Our Kazakh wasn't up to much, unsurprisingly, and the Russian translator we had downloaded proved to be useless when they more or less poo poo'd Russian saying they were Kazakh.  Fair enough.  They didn't have a word of English between them but it's amazing what a combination of gestures, smiles, drawings and photos can communicate.

4 of the 5 women, and the cafe that it all happened in!

The initial dancing, that took us totally by surprise

Nazgul, banter-monster and party-starter extraordinaire!

A couple of hours later and we were being bundled into a car, not entirely sure where we were going. At first we thought they were bringing us to the house we'd be sleeping in so we were trying to get our toothbrushes and the likes out of our bags but then I saw a bag of food, a bottle of vodka and a picnic blanket!  Next thing we knew we were in the car of the local chief of police, driving like maniacs up the smallest bumpiest mountain road you can imagine, with two other cars in convoy.  It turned out it was his birthday (he was a friend or relative of one or more of the women from earlier).  With the picnic blanket out we only had time for one quick shot before lightening ripped through the sky and it started to lash so it was back into the car with us where the party continued.  I'm not sure what happened to the other two cars but we went on a road trip, ending at a hospital where the policeman's wife went in to visit her mother and we sat in the car park having yet more vodka.  We got back to the cafe at about 10pm where everyone else was waiting with a birthday cake.  A slice of cake and a couple more shots before the policeman excused himself saying he had some work he needed to do! The rest of us continued eating, drinking and dancing in his absence.

The picnic before we had to abandon ship when those clouds burst open

The night ended about 1am.  We were put up in Heria's house, one of the women who owned the cafe.  It was just a short walk to the house and when we got there she gave us hot water to wash our feet and then made up beds for us in a spare room.  The house was a beautiful old country cottage, not too dissimilar from one you'd find in the west of Ireland, simply decorated and obviously looked-after with pride.

The room we slept in: one in the bed, one on the floor.

Heria's house

Some outbuildings on Heria's land

The next morning they fed us to bursting point again before we went on our merry way, and for all of this they wouldn't hear of accepting any money from us.   We did however put some US dollars into an envelope and said it was for their next party.  I can't imagine they will ever show up on our doorstep in Ireland so that we can return the favour in kind, so this was our way of showing them our appreciation.  They accepted the gift graciously, and they seemed touched that we had in some way paid them back for all they gave us.  The warmth, generosity and kindness these total strangers showed us was what made it the day it was, rather than any one specific thing that happened.  We were welcomed in, treated as honoured guests, and all without any expectations or promises of something in return.  It was a case of people, humankind, at its best.  Just wanting the good things in life, the simple things, the important things.  To be happy, to share experiences and to connect with other people.

We pedalled away the next morning with tears in our eyes and our hearts bulging with happiness and contentment.  The really amazing thing about that day, and those people, though was that the welcome we got from them wasn't unique.  Travelling by bike seems to immediately break down any barriers that may exist between us and the locals.  It becomes a talking point and it opens us up to experiences that just wouldn't be possible otherwise.  The bikes make us approachable in a way that travelling by car or bus wouldn't.  We are experiencing so much, learning about people and places we knew nothing about, making unforgettable memories, forging new friendships and all the while realising and reaffirming our belief that the vast majority of people everywhere are by their very nature good, honest and kind and just want to live a happy life filled with other good, honest and kind people.  

As I mentioned at the beginning, we are in Kyrgyzstan now.  We are in Bishkek, only 30 odd kilometres from the Kazakh border so we're yet to experience much of the country or people but I'm quite confident that we will continue to have experiences like the one above.  We are leaving Bishkek in the morning, and heading to Osh, where we will officially be starting the section called the Pamir Highway.  With high mountain passes (some over 4000m) and a corresponding decrease in the amount of Oxygen available in the air, it's not going to be the easiest section but, it's the part of the trip we've both been looking forward to the most, and from what we've heard, I don't think it'll disappoint.

*Sorry that there aren't too many photos this time.  As always though you can see some recent ones on our Facebook page.

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