Conveniently, the consular of Uzbekistan in Baku had 'forgot' that there was a 3 day national holiday in Uzbekistan during the time of our visa application and after 8 days of waiting, informed us that we would still have to wait around even longer before collecting our visas, thus, this was the catalyst for our next idea.
With winter fast approaching we had to seriously consider the time and distance we still had to cover before temperatures would start rapidly deteriorating and with an ascent into the high altitude regions of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan planned, this was a month at tops. Our priority since setting off from England in April this year had been to get to Central Asia and in particular, pass through the Pamir mountain range before winter, this has required some serious motivation over the last few months, especially when we could have easily have spent an entire summer touring the Greek islands alone!
Faced with yet another detour north to by-pass Uzbekistan, we studied the map of Kazakhstan. The desserts were vast, the roads limited and distances through empty spaces are astronomical. This was certainly a place that intrigued us, though cycling such huge, empty quarters seemed pointless and unappealing. And so, we saw an ideal opportunity to try another means of travel that we had long talked about.. a great rail journey.
The stewardess showed us to our cabin and I was more than smug when she offered me a key to the female toilets, of which I was told men were strictly prohibited and to keep them locked between use. The boys had already caught sight of the mens facilities and had decided that a trip to the back of the boat or an empty coke bottle was a better idea. Stupidly, I had shot myself in the foot. Moments later, a group of Moldovan women came onboard with children and so the stewardess needed the key back. Only hours into our 3 day voyage, every passenger toilet onboard was not only blocked, but near over-flowing with shit. Seriously, it was everywhere! The smell made us wretch just passing the corridor. I asked the registration officer what the problem was and he told us that one of the women had tried to flush a nappy down the toilet and blocked the entire system. Not sure how true that is, as you would struggle to get a nappy down the suction pipes if you forced it, either way, he informs us there would be no fixing it during this passage. 24 hours or so later and the kids start to get sea sick. With the toilets out of use, we pass the shower room and see the parents standing over their kid as they are spewing into the shower tray!
Other than that, the passage really wasn't too bad, honestly! We met an awesome couple from Scotland, Marianne and Joules, who had cycled from Bristol and we were still travelling with Mark Wallis who we had been cycling with since Georgia. The registration officer invited us for çay and offered us a tour of the ship, including all the engine rooms and bridge.
The heat, combined with the cigarette smoke, was absolutely intoxicating as we descended towards the bilges of the ship. Oil leaked out of valves left, right and centre, collecting in pools around the engines and filters looked more like Dyson dust collectors. It wasn't quite the standard that David and I have become acustomed to, but it was fantastic to see all the same.
On route to the train station, our excitement levels went through the roof when we realised what was racing towards us on the opposite side of the road. Big brown humps and massive teeth, we were seeing our first camels! I started getting my camera out when I realised they guys were on the move, fast! It was incredible how quickly these animals travel and yet they look like they're just out for a casual walk in the park!
Numerous rail tracks accommodated lines of painted carriages in various bold colours, stretching as far as the eye could see. They were transporting oil, Kazakhstan's number one commodity. I am sure they were painted for practical purposes, but they looked really cool!
Directions to the train station were scarce and with our Maps With Me application proving more than frugal for Kazakhstan, we had a fair task locating the train station. The name of the station is Mangushluk and it is situated approximately 12 Km's north east of Aktau. I will add a location to our 'visas and info' page for anyone else who may be considering this option.
As usual, it didn't take anymore than a few minutes before our bikes had attracted a crowd of curious folk, all talking loudly over the top of one another, firing questions that we can't understand, trying to offer their help or trying to sell us something. Marianne and I disappeared inside to negotiate our train journeys, whilst David and Joules negotiated the inquisitive locals. And this is how we met Moukash, a local Kazakh guy wanting to help us out. With no sleepers available for another two days, Moukash kindly offered the 5 of us a safe place to camp at his family home not far from the station.
Whilst Moukash disappeared into the house, we carefully rolled our bikes over the broken glass. I had just leant my bike against the wall when I caught the eyes of two little faces and a beautiful young girl, watching me from behind the door. The girl, wrapped in a red and fushia pink head scarf, had the sweetest and most endearing smile. Standing poised on the step, she held her hand over her younger siblings with affection. She was 12 years old.
The younger boys played shy at first as they buried their cheeky smiles into their sisters skirt, but I could see the twinkle in their eyes and like an explosion of dynamite, they were off!!
The children's mother came to the door too, beaming and radiant with a warm, vibrant smile. She seemed like fun. Her name was Sarah and although a little embarrassed, she knew a few words of English and I think understood more than she let on. Kids started arriving left, right and centre from the nearby houses, wild with excitement and enthusiastically trying out their English repertoire of "hello, hello, what is your name?"
Although the girls were grown up beyond their years, they attached themselves to Marianne and I like two lost souls, exposing their vulnerability and relishing the opportunity to hang out with the girls. They played with my hair and held tightly to each arm, resting their heads on my shoulder as though they had known me for years. When Joules, Marianne and I decided to head to the local shop to buy sweets for the kids and something to offer Moukash and Sarah, all the children followed us and the girls insisted on carrying absolutely everything!
Sarah bought out çay, bread, butter and the cakes and biscuits we had bought for them. I also offered some fresh Chapatti bread to the table, but Moukash seemed a little offended and insisted we keep it for ourselves. And this has been one of the challenges that we have regularly encountered on our journey. As I understand, an important part of Islamic religion, is to provide wonderful and sincere hospitality. Visitors, of any description, are regarded as a 'gift from God' and the act of 'giving' whatever you can manage is principal. Hence, it is not uncommon to be welcomed into peoples home on first encounter and then be looked after as though you are family. This often means offering you whatever they can, even if it means they go without. Offering money, would be very insulting and where as we offer gifts to show our thanks, giving too much can make the host feel they have not fulfilled their role adequately or that you think they are unable to afford you the hospitality. It is a difficult balance to strike and sometimes difficult to accept so much generosity.
My gaze wondered around the room, comprehending the simplicity of their lifestyle and observing the family dynamic, the kids in particular. There was not a single toy that I could see. There were no paintings or pictures, arts or crafts. Aside from the TV and the single light bulb that hung above our little table, I could see no other electrical appliances. Outside, one or two of the children were having a blast on bicycles with flat tyres and amusingly, there was a Samsung mobile phone knocking around that the kids were playing games on. It is incredible that of all things, EVERYONE seems to have a mobile phone, regardless of phone and Internet connectivity!!
One by one, the family joined in, their voices resonating, their eyes alive. It was truly unique to capture such an integral part of traditional Kazakh culture, even the little kids were contributing! We were not able to tell the difference, but Moukash insisted that the sound was not as it should be. The original strings had broken and although he explained to us that fishing line would be the ideal substitute, they were unable to afford the luxury, so had strung it up with lengths of cotton instead. David and I decided immediately that the least we could do was send him some real strings as soon as we have the opportunity to buy them in Australia. All aside, it was incredible that he still produced such a mesmerising sound using cotton strings!
The evening drew to an end and we were pulling our camping mats out, having established that the girls and boys would be sleeping separately (thus the two rooms). However, we were mortified when we realised that Moukash had planned to sleep outside in order to safeguard our bicycles!!!! We were not concerned about our bikes what so ever, but there was absolutely no way we would allow our gracious host to sleep outside for our sakes, so David and I volunteered instead.
They had a shabby couch outside, though super comfy and more than good for us. Moukash and Sarah fussed around bringing us heavy blankets and making sure we were comfortable. And as we lay there, gazing at the stars, dogs were barking, music boomed from what sounded like a wedding party a few houses away and people were in and out their houses to use the outdoor toilets. Other than being awoken by a horse galloping past us, we slept soundly, warmed by all the wonderful people we had met so far. The biggest surprise we had when we awoke to the heat of the breaking dawn, was to see that in fact, we were not the only people sleeping outside. Alongside nearly every house there were wooden pallets with stirring bodies wriggling under the blankets on top!!