Kazakhstan Part 1 Open Country
Leaving Russia everything changed. The border guards smiled and laughed and told us to be careful. A few miles into this country we wondered did he mean the huge potholes that appear without warning. The road changed, the countryside became wild uncultivated Steppe, and the traffic lightened and became less racey and manic.
We've learned in the past week that the President and his people are keen to show the world that their country is open and friendly. We felt this immediately even the landscape, vast and open, made us feel more relaxed as we drive on east.
We felt confident immediately to drive into the first village we came to and look for a campsite. We had taken a day or two to feel this way with each country we've entered so far. Some laughing, friendly, villagers hopped in a car and told us to follow them. We did and they lead us to a river and told us we wouldn't be bothered there. We saw a fire pit and had our first campfire feeling very chilled.
We were amazed in Uralsk, the first city in Kazakhstan we came to, that we navigated our way right to the door of our next couch surfer Rimma's apartment. We were very ready for the showers she offered after the heat of the day. After this she took us to explore the city park on the river and again everyone was friendly even though Rimma said people would not normally smile at each other and that they were a serious people.
Some boys, apon realizing that our boys were boys with long hair and not girls, followed us throught the park and giggling asked if they could take photos. They stood watching as we played in the fountains amused as otherwise it was only little kids in them.
We chatted to Rimma. She works for an oil company doing data entry a month on and a month off. When she is off, she comes to her flat in Uralsk. We caught her just in time as she was about to head back. She works 12 hour days 7 to 7pm during her month on. The company is 2000km away, near the Caspian sea. When there, she lives in the company village with a room mate and everything provided for her and her collegues: swimming pools, bars, BBQ's where they can order meat prepared and have it ready to cook with friends. There are ex-pats at the company and Rimma speaks very good English. They are mostly American's and she tells us that they are paid more than the Kazaks and like working there a lot. Many of them are in debt at home and don't have to spend anything while working at the company as everything is covered by expenses so they can save to pay debts. Rimma hopes to study more abroad and is saving to travel. She says most of her college friends are now married with children, but she wants a career first.
We ask her what people do for fun and she says 'visit each others homes - eat food' and that many people are now building new houses and decorating them to show each other! Sounds familiar except that here the president gives land in the city's growing suburbs to country people to build on for free!
Rimma was so helpful to us especially the next day coming with us to the police station to complete our registration forms for visitors to Kazakhstan. We bid her goodbye and she told us to text her if we needed anything.
We left Uralsk and tried to cover some bigger distance as its a long way to Astana. We pulled in late in the evening at another river to cook our diner. A short while later a car pulled up and 8 lads and a boy got out. If this was anywhere else we might have been a bit alarmed but we were quickly put at ease as Sa_Gon_deek introduced himself in good English and asked where we were from and that he was interested to meet and talk with us. They said they were going to get something for a house they were building and as he left he said something about wishing we could be his guest.
As we packed up some older men on horses came by and offered us to get on them. The lads in the car arrived back and Sa-gone-deek translated some banter- they were offering to swap a horse for our van with much laughter.
We told him that we would like to go to his village with him and he was thrilled. We hopped in the van and followed back along the road and out a dirt track. We arrived in a small village greeted by children who the boys were soon playing food ball with. Sa-gon-deek took us to a local beauty spot in his car and told us it was where they liked to go for outdoor picnics. Back at his house he told us food was ready and we went into their small kitchen in the summer house (older house that is cooler in summer) for a meal. It was a full table and the main part was fish from the river - deep fried with spices - delicious, as was the clay oven cooked bread, jams, and to Finn and Sammy's delight milk from a pale warm from the cow. All this was prepared by his mother and sister-in-law who also layed out beds for us in the new house. I talked (sign language) with his father about growing vegetables his hobby that he boasts also keeps them alive in a bad winter.
Sa-gon-deek explains he learned English at college in Uralsk and had come back to the village as all patriotic young people do to help there. He is the local school director at age 27 and has 40 pupils and a teaching staff of 15. This is not enough and he is spending his summer building a house with the help of his friends to attract a new teacher to the school. They will have this house for free.
We were given some educational books to bring and left these some seeds and other gifts with them when leaving the next day. It was an amazing visit and hard to describe but will be a highlight for sure. Finn commented on leaving after a big egg breakfast, and more fresh milk, that he loved it and would like to live like them. He said, "they look poor but they are not they have everything they need and maybe only need money for petrol." Petrol by the way is 50cents a litre here. However, I asked Sa-gong-deek's sister-in-law what she wished for her 3 children to stay in the village or leave. She said to go to college and then stay in the city would be best for them. More photos of the village and the roads east and some more people we meet in Kazakhstan Part 2