Kazakhstan #3 – Hitching

18 Jul

The Life-Changing Magic of Hitchhiking

The final installment from our trip to Kazakhstan  — A guest blog by Patrick

Our hearts raced as we considered hitchhiking at night. We both had strict rules against it, but this was our hard trip and we were supposed to be daredevils and things had gone so smoothly thus far. We were leaning towards risking it as we departed Kolsai Lake 1, but then the universe spoke up: the construction crew was back at it and they refused to let us pass. After some aggressive back and forths with the grumbly foreman, we were eventually allowed to pass. We still hadn’t made up our mind as we approached Saty, the point of decision. We could stay comfortably there in our yurt again tonight, or risk it all and continue on with the Germans. As we drove down the main street one final time, we looked at each other and decided to go for it: we were throwing ourselves back into the life-changing magic of hitchhiking.

The sun goes down on Saty.

 

Our ride down the hill from Saty was quick thanks to Anna’s adept driving, but our spirits dropped as we noticed clouds on the horizon. The lightning started in the distance and grew closer as we approached our drop off point. A storm? Really? Had our luck run out? We said a heartfelt goodbye to our amazing German teammates, and hopped out of the car just as dusk settled in.

That massive storm was headed straight for us.

 

Hitching at dusk, a new experience!

 

We hurriedly prepared ourselves (Sammi had washed herself in the freezing cold lake before we left, but we both changed our shirts and transformed into non-threatening humans) and got to the road as quickly as we could. There was no time to waste! We were passed by three cars before the nicest Kazakh guy pulled up, smiled profusely as we explained we wanted a ride to Kegen, and immediately told us to hop in! Well, that was a stressful 8 minutes.

He knows how to count “One, two, three” in English. I know how to say “Shop” in Kazakh. It was a great conversation.

 

Our driver was so amazing – just genuinely helpful and interested in us. Unfortunately, he spoke about nine words of English, and our Russian was a little weak (Note to self: Learn Russian!). We somehow managed some broken exchanges about numbers and boxing and the USA. Luckily music is the universal language. Our new savior turned up his Kazakh tunes, finding a catchy dance/trance tune with some English. “It’s my life!” bellowed through the car on seemingly endless repeat. And never stopped. Our driver was so excited that the song had English in it that he had put it on repeat. “Is this torture?” Sammi asked.

One of the interesting things about traveling in Kazakhstan is that for many of the locals we interacted with we were the first Americans they had met. Apparently Kazakhstan isn’t at the top of American bucket lists. That was awesome for us, as many of our hosts and new friends were overly eager to meet an American in the flesh and brag about us to their friends. Or, in this case, girlfriend. Our driver was so excited that he insisted that we FaceTime with his girlfriend. While driving. On windy roads. In the dark. And rain. All of a sudden our dream ride had turned into a death trap with mind-numbing music. With that said, it was so much fun to soak up the joy he had from having us in his car, and we were more than happy to talk to his girlfriend in a language she couldn’t understand.

#safetythird

 

As we approached Kegen, the town near the border we hoped to stay in, we tracked down the location of the hotel we had read about on the map and instructed our new friend/driver to take us there. It was pouring down rain when we arrived, and the place looked not only deserted but slightly haunted. Uh oh. Our fearless friend got out of the car and tried to wake up someone in the hotel to no avail. He even stood out in the rain and called the number on the hotel to try to help us out. No luck.

gen·er·os·i·ty – (n) finding random Americans a hotel in the pouring rain after you’ve driven an hour out of your way out of sheer kindness

 

Sammi and I were somewhat concerned at this point, but luckily we were able to find another potential lead on the map. Our driver conversed with some locals, navigated around a massive hospital to the ‘Sauna Hotel’, and once again got out in the rain to try to find us some accommodation. This time the owner picked up his phone, came over, and showed us our warm, dry room. We took a photo with our new friend before saying goodbye. As we were parting we realized that he wasn’t even heading to Kegen (where we were) in the first place; he had driven an hour out of his way to take us where we needed to go.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

 

One of my favorite things about traveling is having the opportunity to accept the incredible generosity of strangers. Fundamentally, this world is an amazing place and people are full of love and joy. Traveling constantly puts you in situations where you don’t just want the help of others; you need it. And I never fail to be overwhelmed with gratitude for the locals who are willing to go out of their way (literally and figuratively) to help people who don’t even speak their language. This is what makes hitchhiking so magical – you literally put yourself at the mercy of the kindness of others, and they rarely disappoint you.

From my journal: “It’s amazing how much travel can broaden and deepen your belief in the goodness of people. The sheer generosity of others, especially when asking nothing in return, frequently brings me so much joy.”

This text exchange between Sammi and Helen is perfect.

 

We enjoyed the banya (we were staying at the Hotel Sauna, after all), got some sleep, and started prepping for tomorrow’s adventure: hitching across the border to Kyrgyzstan. We woke up to blue skies, high spirits, and incredible thirst. We set off to find a magazine, where we promptly bought too many cookies (#theme #youliketotryeverythingdontyou) as well as some much needed water. We found a small cafe tucked away next to a shop and enjoyed a delicious meal of soup and dumplings. We were joined by a Japanese traveler who was biking around the world, and enjoyed swapping travel stories. He also agreed to take our extra cookies, which was a huge win.

The morning scene outside of our hotel.

 

Breakfast! Don’t ask what a Wenice is.

 

Buoyed by full stomachs and having finally found the bathroom (“The lady finally just walked me there”), we set off to the border. It’s not everyday that you wake up with the goal of hitchhiking into Kyrgyzstan! After Sammi epicly missed a high five with a local and a man with a gun went running by, we caught our first hitch with the nicest father and son who were driving to the next town in an old Soviet car that was missing it’s front seat. The father had the heartiest laugh ever and enjoyed talking to us in Kazakh about things we couldn’t understand.

Hitch #1: Is that a tar truck?

 

From there we had a short walk past a mosque before catching a ride with two construction workers to the end of the town by the border. Now we were a mere 11 km from the border. We were passed by four cars in a row before we hit the jackpot. A car pulled over with plenty of space and motioned at us invitingly, pointing to the back seat. We started to get in and were surprised to find a large British man with a bigger backpack than we had ever seen. The man then started to wave us out along with the British guy. The driver, satisfied by his empty car, then sped off in the other direction.

“What just happened?!?” I asked Sammi. We thought we were getting a ride but then we got an extra traveler instead. It was the INVERSE HITCH, every intrepid traveler’s worst nightmare. Instead of getting a ride to our destination we now had to figure out how to hitch with another human and twice the luggage. Alas, Kazakhstan wasn’t going to let us go that easily!

We started walking and were beginning to accept our fate when a tiny Soviet car packed full of people pulled over. After some careful rearranging of children and things, we somehow managed to get our stuff into the trunk and pile into the back seat. And so, the eight of us went on our way, Sammi and I, our inverse hitch British friend, three children, and two adults, along the final 11 kilometers of bumpy, rocky road to the Kyrgyz border. The car literally scraped the ground every time we hit a bump, and everyone’s foot fell asleep. But we made it to the border and were overly grateful for the three rides that had made our day traveling over rough roads so smooth.

Smalled up.

 

We watched the tiny car drive off into the distance (it turned out they were headed North along the border) and walked across the border. Things were going smoothly and we were feeling a little too confident. Sammi snapped a quick photo of me heading into Kyrgyzstan, and was immediately called out by a soldier. He demanded to see her phone and threatened to deport her over and over again. He was pretty clearly looking for a bribe, but Sammi was so surprised by the turn of events that she didn’t recognize his intent. Fortunately, he eventually relented and allowed her to cross through. Our morning was a success, and now it was time to turn our focus to a place we were even less prepared for. Readers, we’re headed to Kyrgyzstan…

Walking into Kryz…I mean Kyrz…I mean Kryg…

 

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