Day 09 – The Endless Steppe

Friday 5 September 2014

I am not where I expected to be; I am not where I’m supposed to be; and I don’t know if I like it.

This all stems from my innate lack of self-confidence and a general dislike of hurting people’s feelings (except during arguments when I explode and rant and rave). I’m in a different hostel to the one I booked; it’s much cheaper but it is quite a bit of a young people’s lively place. In addition, I’m here on my own, which kind of forewent the point of coming here.

No, this has nothing to do with being led astray by a local woman. Rather, by a mid-20s British man. I met him at the bus station in Bishkek; he was getting the same bus as I was to Almaty. He has an intriguing backstory – he took a motorbike holiday in France, and liked the feel of riding so much he carried on going, quit his job, and stopped eventually in Almaty, where he’s been an English teacher in the academy there ever since (which is a few months). His Russian, incidentally, is only marginally better than mine.
Anyway, we were chatting on the bus (“I love Almaty, the women are gorgeous” was one of his catchphrases), and suggested we go together from the bus station into the centre of town – one of his friends in Almaty was going to meet us at the bus station. Not knowing where the heck I was going, this seemed perfectly reasonable to me – although we were waiting for his friend to turn up for maybe 45 minutes.
Once we were all on the local bus in Almaty, he suggested I go stay at the hostel he stays at, in the centre, and very cheap, much cheaper than the one I booked. He also suggested if I wanted, that I could go out with a few of his friends/work colleagues at an Indian restaurant.
Well, I didn’t end up doing this. It was almost dark when we arrived at his hostel, which I’d no idea where it was or how far it was from anywhere – the hostel gave me a business card but on first ross-reference, I couldn’t find any of the roads on my map. The English chap got changed and then left for the restaurant – I was downstairs in one of the social areas trying to find where I was, and he left without me – and I had no idea where his restaurant was.
So, not a good start. In addition, the hostel seems quite disorganised and messy, there’s very little security in evidence, and the Internet keeps going down. Maybe I’m just being picky and noticing things more, because I’m feeling angsty about it all. I ended up eating at a Formica-and-florescent-laden canteen-like place that was nearly empty and probably not used to catering for tourists.

Today didn’t start off well either; I spent about 45mins looking for the main post office in Bishkek. It was listed on my map, but it didn’t seem at all obvious. Eventually, after asking two people on the street, in very bad Russian, I got there – it’s hidden away at the back of one of the squares, behind a corner between a large bank and a telecoms building, and not at all signposted or otherwise indicated. It’s impossible to see from the road, you’d never pass it accidentally, and the only way of finding it is pretty much to know that it’s there anyway.
Oddly, they also wanted me to send the letter in a specific airmail envelope rather than in mine, even if I wrote ‘airmail’ on it.

Catching the bus itself was fine and pretty easy; it was nicely indicated and the payment kiosk was conveniently opposite the same bay. The only gripe was that it left quite a bit later than I’d hoped- we were waiting for it to fill up. The journey to Almaty, however …
… One of my American friends, Dayna, once told me a tale of how she went on a road trip from Michigan to Las Vegas. Feeling tired upon entering the flat, monotonous, cornfields of Nebraska, she fell asleep. Upon waking, some six hours later, she looked around and saw flat, monotonous cornfields. “Still in freakin’ Nebraska?!” was her exclamation when she found out where she was.
The bus to Almaty was a bit like that. Easy, but also long and boring – a straight road passing through flat fields of nothing in particular. Only some mountains in the vague misty distance prevented complete monotony. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that travel is interesting and broadens the mind.

The border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan was quite busy and hectic. As Westerners, we kind of got slightly priority (speedy) passage – I guess because we weren’t trying to import/export herds of livestock or large farming machinery, which the locals have a tendency to do. There’s a large bazaar in the North of Bishkek, Dordoy, which is pretty close to this border point and all manner of goods get, shall we say, ‘imported’ through here. My travel companion’s only gripe was that they ended up stamping him out of Kyrgyzstan on the ‘wrong’ page of his passport, as he was trying to keep all his stamps together.
He was doing the crossing as a ‘visa run’. Currently, westerners can stay visa-free in Kazakhstan for only 15 days, so what he does every two weeks is get the bus to Bishkek, stay a night or two, then get the bus back to Almaty, thus ‘resetting’ his 15 days. He himself has also working visa issues and needs to go back to Bishkek on Monday to sort something out on that. He was very vocal about how he hates Bishkek (“fucking awful city” was another of his catchphrases).
Oddly, while we were waiting on the Kazakh side for our bus (and everyone else) to pass through the border, I bumped into the young Anglo-French lady from the Alamedin Trek last Saturday – she was doing the ‘visa run’ in the opposite direction (I think Kyrgyzstan allows 30 days entry).

I wonder if I can leave the hostel and find mine tomorrow without anyone here noticing? I’ve booked in for two nights, but if I don’t stay here tomorrow I’ll only have lost £2.50. But I feel bad about doing that, even now – but then I feel bad about letting the other place down (I sent them an e-mail explaining I’d been stuck in Bishkek and that I’d be there tomorrow). Oh I don’t know.

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