(This post features 18 photos)
It’s the best that could have possibly happened to us. The best evening so far. Maybe (and I’m sure of that) the best evening of this entire tour. I honestly don’t think that the coming months hold something like this in store for us again. Which is kind of good and sad at the same time. I think about all this while I’m sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by all these people. It feels like Dominik and I belong here. As if we were destined to be here from the beginning. Here, in this house, in Martuk in Kazakhstan. The question is: what happened and how did we end up here? Have a cup of tea, it’s going to be a longer read. Is the tea ready? Good. Are you sure? (Just checking on you)
(5 hours ago)
We just crossed the Kazakh border. Nothing special happened, apart from the border official (the one holding a mirror attached to the end of a stick, looking for hidden drugs or bombs under cars) who wanted to try Dominik’s bike. My first thoughts about Kazakhstan are that of amazement. I cannot believe how much a landscape can change by just crossing a border, which is an imaginary line, basically. For nature, this line doesn’t even physically exist and still… from one second to the other we find ourselves in a desert-like environment. Flat, dry, sandy land, as far as the eye can see. Impressed we take off. In the previous post I mentioned why the first day in a new country is particularly stressful. So, here we are again, in the ever-same situation: running out of our food and water supply from Russia. On top of that, we have no local money, since we haven’t come across a big Kazakh city in order to find a bank.
We know that 30 km from the border there is a small village called Martuk. We hope to find a small currency exchange booth. (In Romania, you can expect loads of these booths in the first village after the border). Two hours later we arrive in Martuk. However, no exchange booth for us, of course. This means we can’t buy local currency (Kazakh Tenge), leaving us only with worthless Russian Rubels in our wallets. What good is it entering a village, being probably among the Top 10 richest people instantly, and still not able to buy a bottle of water? However, something happens that hasn’t happened so far, something strange: I slowly get aware of how much people stare at us. The whole town seems to have its eyes fixed on us. As if we were green, ugly aliens. Children, adults, old people. Everyone is doing it. People do not greet nor say a word. They just stare, interrupting whatever they were just occupied with. Some stand in front of their houses, others shortly pause their discussion with one another until we pass. Sometimes they would shout a bad-timed “Atkuda? (Where are you from?)” long after we pass them but they don’t care about the answer anyway. I can understand that they probably have not seen many tourists up here in the north. Still, it is an abrupt transition after being completely ignored in Russia (ignored in a positive-pleasant sort of way). We keep an eye out for a supermarket that looks capitalistic enough to accept credit cards (currently the only mean by which we can buy something, not having any paper money).
My water bottles have been empty for an hour already. As we only keep finding small shops, I’m getting more and more irritated. There is this one thing about me: I have a hard time coping with stressful and unforeseen situations. They bring out the worst in me. They make me get bad-tempered and irrational. That said and realizing that we will have to leave Martuk hungry and thirsty with no opportunity of eating or drinking anything until maybe the next day, I get very irritated. I look at people angrily and with gritted teeth I roam the village’s streets following Dominik on his bike. Luckily, he hasn’t given up and is still optimistic. Yet again, we stop at a small shop. Dominik hasn’t even entered, when a black VW Sharan pulls up, right next to us. Letting down the darkened window on the passenger’s side, the driver becomes visible. He glances at us through the side window, wearing a grey T-shirt, a black hat and a pair of sunglasses. He looks threatening. What does he want? The situation reminds me of bad gangster movies. “Atkuda?”, he asks with a smile. Moodily I just turn my head away. “I don’t need a chit-chat right now. I need a supermarket. Come on, just leave.”, I think to myself. However, Dominik is the better man in this situation and answers the man’s question and explains our situation. “Follow me, I’ll bring you to a big supermarket”, he gestures us, wasting no time. I can’t believe our luck. I really need to reconsider my attitude for the future, I decide, while driving close to the black car, swallowing the whirled-up dust. I feel ashamed.
After two minutes, we stop. We are indeed at a big supermarket. A “VISA” and “MASTERCARD” sticker on the door let us know that we are in the right place. “My name is Rinat”, the friendly man says, getting out of the car, his phone in his hand. Rinat is a Kazakh man in his 30’s and about our height. He has short, black hair and a winning smile. In sunlight, he doesn’t appear threatening anymore. I’m not proud of the prejudice I just showed. But you know, when you’re hungry…
Rinat hands me his phone, saying “my wife wants to talk to you”. Oh, really?
– “Hello?”, I insecurely speak into the microphone. I don’t know what to expect.
– “Hello. How are you?”, a pleasant female voice responds in perfect English. I don’t know what I was expecting, but certainly not this. “My husband just told me about you. Do you have time? We want to invite you to dinner at our house”.
For a moment, I’m speechless and I don’t know what to say. Just minutes ago, I thought bad about this man and now he and his wife want to invite us into their home. Two stinky, hungry, dangerous looking, dirty, bearded (and in my case bald) guys. They don’t know us, we could be bad people, burglars, … and still. I’m blown away by such unconditional hospitality. Uncertain of what to respond I make eye contact with Dominik. With an uncertain and daring smile he shrugs his shoulder, as if trying to say “yeah sure, let’s try this”.
– “Thank you very much for your invitation. Thank you so much. We can’t believe this is happening. We would love to visit you. Please don’t put yourself to any bother on our account.”, I respond, trying hard to suppress the feeling of excitement rushing over me.
And off we go. The second time in an hour we follow Rinat in his black car, leading us through the dusty roads of Martuk. After a few hundred meters, we arrive. We enter the garden gate and are told to lean the bikes against the house. A short impulse, a doubt, appears in my mind: should I lock the bike? What if…? Again, prejudice. No, I decide. Don’t be an idiot. Stop it. Not again.
As we enter the house we meet Gulshara. She is Rinat’s wife, the woman I talked to on the phone minutes ago. Gulshara is a young, lovely lady with long, black hair. She autodidactically learned English when she was at University (which is impressive!). Now, she is an English teacher at the local school. “I’m so happy that you are here. I can improve my English with you”, she said. Have you ever had an actual English teacher say that to you? Us neither. I highly doubt that anybody could improve anything with us, but I don’t mention that. We reply that our English is not the yellow from the egg but it goes. “Just this morning my husband and I talked about his sister, who also travels by bike to visit different countries. And now it’s evening and you guys showed up in Martuk. That’s a sign.”, Gulshara laughs.
Gulshara and Rinat have three kids: a teenage boy named Tamirlan, a sweet little girl named Inkar and a cute, two-year-old boy named Ayan. They live in a beautiful house. They own a garden where they grow their own vegetables and fruits (strawberries! sweet as the nectar of gods) and keep some animals. This place is absolutely idyllic and somehow magical, situated somewhere in the endless Kazakh steppe. Exactly my idea of a good, quite life.
As we sit down at the table, our plates get piled with Plov. It’s a dish that consists of rice topped with meat and salad (a traditional Uzbek meal, actually). It’s absolutely delicious! We haven’t had warm, cooked food in ages and this is pure heaven.
At first, we are reserved toward our hosts. This is because Dominik and I, as Austrians, are simply not used to this degree of hospitality. It’s not something you can find in Austria too often. It may sound strange but it’s difficult to accept hospitality because one automatically assumes that the other one wants something in return. Furthermore, we find ourselves in an unusual situation: it’s the first day in yet another foreign country and it’s the first close contact with any locals since we left home. However, soon the mutual curiosity takes over and we end up talking openly about lots of things. Gulshara and Rinat are particularly interested about life in Austria, what the country looks like, about the school system, about Dominik’s and my education, about Austrian food and sweets, and so on. We actually had a really hard time answering those question. Seems like we’re bad Austrian ambassadorsJ We, on the other hand, are interested in the Kazakh culture, in road conditions, in do’s and don’ts in this country, and in stuff, that will help us survive later. Gulshara and Rinat sometimes call us “brave” and “real traveller” during these conversations, as if it is a job, like a librarian or a builder. It’s a funny perception, really. We try to explain that we are neither one nor the other. We’re just two regular, unexperienced, off-the-shelf guys trying to go around the world by bike.
The atmosphere gets more and more light-hearted and cosier, as we sit around the table in the dimly lit kitchen. Outside, the daylight has already turned into night. The windows are pitch black, hiding the yard from our view. It’s strange. It feels like we’ve not arrived just somewhere, but at a home. We can’t help but feel at home. Gulshara and Rinat are such genuinely warm-hearted, simple and kind people that it’s honestly hard to describe. Their grey cat and their adorable little children soon join us, giving me clumsy back rubs with their tiny hands while I am sitting at the table. The communication with Rinat is fun, since we just understand English and not so much Russian. Often Gulshara has to translate between us, other times we use the Google Translate app and talk to each other like that. When these ways of communication fail, we rely on gestures, smiles and laughs. In the end, everyone understands everyone. It’s hilarious. I ask Rinat where to buy a Kazakh flag, since I started to stick flags of visited countries on my bike. He leads me outside to the garage and gives me his very own Kazakh flag that he had lurking in a drawer. I tell Rinat that I feel really honoured! I immediately attach it to my bike, next to the Austrian and Romanian flag.
It doesn’t take long and Rinat gets the good vodka out of the fridge (the “Kazakh water”, as we all jokingly agree to call it hence forth). He says that Kazakh vodka is the best vodka and that Russians often come to Kazakhstan just to buy their vodka. Furthermore, Gulshara explains to us that Rinat doesn’t normally drink, unless he feels really comfortable with the people around him. So, we really appreciate this gesture. Dominik and I also don’t drink, normally. However, you have to know when to make an exception and honour the occasion and culture. Therefore, three tiny glasses alternately get filled and emptied, Rinat always being careful not to leave them empty for too long. I agree with Rinat: Kazakh vodka is delicious. A warm feeling spreads from my stomach to the rest of the body. I slightly lose control over my lazy smile, being deeply content with the situation and the people around me. I’m getting dizzy…
Later that evening, the kitchen table gets pleasantly crowded, as Rinat’s uncle and aunt come by to have dinner, having finished their Ramadan fast for today. Gulshara prepared a second meal: it’s called Beshbermak, which literally translates to “five fingers”. It’s THE Kazakh traditional meal. It consists of dough, potatoes and cooked meat, served on an enormous plate. It is tradition to eat this dish with your hand and fingers (hence the name). Everyone does as tradition demands (except Dominik and I, who are given forks). After eating Beshbermak you also drink the brew of the cooked beef meat. Everything is so tasty. (We had some more Beshbermak on different occasions in Kazakhstan. None of them came even close to Gulshara’s Beshbermak.)
Has the invitation initially been just for dinner, it just got extended to staying overnight. We don’t even try to refuse. It’s 1 a.m. when everybody finally goes to bed. I fall asleep fast. In the morning Gulshara prepares breakfast for us, saying that we should stay one more day. This great hospitality is characteristic for Gulshara and Rinat. However, we really need to get going. After a last photo, we leave this dear family behind. We thank them over and over again for everything they did for us. For picking us up from the street when we needed it the most, for spending time with us, for giving us warm food, for showing us the right supermarket, for having us over night. I wish I could say that we were able to repay them. We were not. The truth is that the only thing we were able to leave behind was an Austrian flag, which up to this day is pinned on their fridge door. I will honestly never forget that evening together. We will never forget our friends in Martuk.