Tag Archives: border

The Road to Astana

I woke from my tight spot in the trees, unwrapped the corners of my tent and packed it away. I was in Petropavlovsk – the central and northernmost city in Kazakhstan. But before I could have a look, I had been told I needed to “register my arrival.” Did this mean check in with the police? Police in Kazakhstan are infamous for making trouble for foreigners to get bribes. Or perhaps it meant I had to stay in a hotel? I secretly wanted to – warm shower, clean bed and security for one night.

I wandered the streets towards the center, phone in-hand, trying to find an open Wi-Fi signal. But I wasn’t in Europe anymore and it took a few hours and a lot of aching steps do this.

Finally, outside a shopping mall, from a few reliable web sources I found that it had already been done at the border. The need to register was a few years old.

Petropavlovsk was, in one sentence, an amalgamation between the last influence of Russia and the first of Kazakhstan; slum-like houses began to appear and people were squatting instead of sitting. I only noticed this in hindsight, because the cultural change had happened so gradually as a result of travelling by land from the UK instead of flying.

Kazakhstan speaks Russian and not English too, but by now I had picked up enough to get by. As a consequence, I would improve it further.

I still felt the usual anxiety that I do when I enter a new country and I needed a few days to adjust. I walked out the other side of the city towards Astana and stayed in the woods for two nights. I built a huge fire and took comfort in the familiarity of camping. I brewed tea, read a book and cooked dinner.

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The next day, all I did was venture back into the city, leaving my tent, sleeping bag, etc. behind, to resupply food and water. I maintained the cold Russian neutrality and did not speak with anyone, but here, I noticed, people are a lot more open; they speak to strangers. So, I began to do the same.

Finding Wi-Fi caused a flood of notifications to overwhelm my phone. One was from September, saying she wanted to go on a break. I tried calling via WhatsApp, but the Wi-Fi kept cutting out. Then I tried finding other open spots, but it was the same story. That time-sensitive conversation would have to wait.

I managed to talk to my best friend, Jack, about it and he managed to comfort me a bit. He had just gotten a normal-person job.

I wandered back to the woods knowing what September and I would say, but trying to store the emotions for a few days’ time. The fire was even bigger than the night before, and its mesmerizingly infinite number of appearances made me forget my problems, it warmed me until I slipped into the safety of my tent and crossed the border into sleep.

It was 28 Celsius when I got going at 10am; I was greasy and smelly and didn’t want to get any worse. I found a lake next to the road which I walked into, rinsed my clothes in and walked out of, soaking wet. I walked for another 10 minutes, by which point I had dried completely and put out my thumb feeling nice and cool.

The first lift was from a friendly Kazakh man whose car I think was so old and beaten up, that it was restricted to first gear.

Second, I got taken to a gas station where I saw my first number plate of Tajikistan. I bought bottled water for the first time since day one, and some pastry to keep me going until Astana, the capital.

The next lift took me to the halfway point, but by now it was after dark. I didn’t want to hitchhike at night, after what happened in Russia, so I set up camp behind a gas station. As I did so, I knelt on a piece of broken glass which went quite deeply into my knee. I cleaned it and it seemed to clot quickly, but the next morning I woke up with a small patch of blood on my cargo pants. Luckily, some water cleared it mostly.

I only had 5 hours’ sleep, because I needed to be packed away and walking before anyone saw me at the gas station. The result of this was quite pleasant – walking next to the sun as it climbed the horizon to my left.

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I came up to a police checkpoint and they called me over. ‘Here we go’, I thought. He asked to see my passport, and after asking where my visa for Kazakhstan was and finding the stamp, he showed me YouTube videos for about 20 minutes. I was free to go after that.

A dog (below) then came up to me. I could see that he didn’t receive much attention. I gave him some water out of the bottom of a nearby can, which was a mistake because he followed then wouldn’t leave.

But I began to consider it, having a dog with me. Romantic images began to enter my mind – man and dog, travelling together around the world. Reality quickly set in when he began barking and chasing ever single car that passed. It wasn’t meant to be I suppose.

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A car pulled in for me and all I could do was get in and leave him, and his confused eyes. This car took me all the way to Astana.

Despite the roads being in a dangerously poor condition, they do present some exceptional views. Travelling south through the steppe I could see nothing but desert. Looking ahead, the road trailed off into infinity. Quite often, the only car I could see was the one I was in.

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I checked into a $5 hostel in Astana feeling full of energy and motivated to be productive. I was going to read Ed Stafford’s ‘Walking the Amazon,’, because I was told, by him speaking at an event, that he documented how he overcame the most difficult challenge in any expedition – the mental one.

But as I sat on my bed, I realized I only had the energy to take a shower and get under the covers. I slept until the following morning. Tomorrow, I would talk with September.

Into Kazakhstan

The two Sergeys arranged a lift to the Kazakhstan border for me before leaving. At the fork in the road, they went left and we went right. they honked their horns to say goodbye and good luck. I would never see them again, but I didn’t want to; the memories I had from the days with them were some of the best of my life and I didn’t want to spoil them.

My new driver did not speak much, but it was fine, some don’t want to. As a hitchhiker, you have to follow the lead of the driver. I was entertained by his windscreen bunting with topless women printed on it.

He asked if I had a visa. I didn’t, but according to the British FCO website, I didn’t need one. Still, it was an anxious 30-minute ride. This was to be the first of many non-European border crossing – stories I had been told of long waits, fake fines, confusion and bureaucracy all leaked into the path ahead of me.

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At the first of the four-stage crossing, I was met my a Russian police officer who checked my passport.

“Where is your visa for Kazakhstan?” He asked.

“Britain – no need.” I nervously replied in broken Russian.

He paused and took my passport to the office.

I stood for 10 minutes in this place where forest blends to desert. It was quiet, dry and there was a warm smell in the air.

He returned, sending me through with an authoritative stance, as if to say ‘you got away with it this time.’

Next, the border official was unsure if my passport photo was one of me. The clean-shaven Tom was gone and she now had a different person in front of her. Standing in front of the window, my legs shook but my upper body remained calm. She had to call her boss over to verify my identity.

I walked into the space between countries – an empty place where no one belongs. Stagnant water stood still in dead rivers either side of the road, which was contained by tall, chain-link fences. The weak woodland a few forbidden steps away seemed restricted, like a man being kept in one room for his whole life.

Trucks were queued up waiting to enter Russia. One curious Kazakh driver called me over and invited me in for coffee. We had a fairly smooth conversation in Russian about each other and my journey. It is amazing how much Russian I had learned in just 3 weeks, considering I knew nothing but the word ‘vodka’ when I entered.

After completing a migration card with not one word of English written on it, I was free to cross into Kazakhstan. A UK number plate caught my eye and I jogged over to say hello. I was so excited, having seen none of my own people since Poland. I talked a bit with them and felt relief in not having to try to roll my R’s, slow down my speech and try to speak another language. It reminded me so much of being back home – unwelcome. They were not interested in me, as us Brits generally aren’t. They just wanted to keep to themselves, and even telling them I had hitchhiked here from the UK did not change this. The contrasting generosity I had received from that truck driver just minutes ago was eye-opening.

I lunched at the border cafe, and the two women behind the counter asked to get a signed photocopy of my magic letter.

The road was now quite empty and I saw just one vehicle every 5 minutes. A car stopped after 15 minutes, but they asked for money. I had been told this would happen, and I would just have to explain each time that I didn’t have any. I devised an ingenious hand movement to use internationally – pointing to myself, rubbing my index finger and thumb together, then shaking my head. Me – money – none. It has never failed me since. they drove off a bit angry as many would do in the coming months.

Tiredness began to set in and I scouted for camping spots. Luckily, a man picked me up and took me to Petropavlas, the northernmost city of this country. The sun set in the passion-fruit sky of this new country. I was nervous, as I always am in a new country, and I now couldn’t find anywhere to camp.

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I walked for an hour before finding a small cliff with three trees at the bottom. I climbed down carefully and set my tent up in the middle of them. I had to twist the corners to accommodate the small ground space. Someone had watched me do this and I was concerned they might come and rob me, but I was too tired to care.