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Day 310 - 373: Three countries in 60 days

 

It had been a week of waiting for our mail to come, we were getting restless and angsty to get walking again. It just couldn’t come fast enough. We had done everything there was to do in the small town of Khorgas, which wasn’t much, and had spent the last couple days waiting for the package locked up in our room like hermits, playing computer games, watching movies, and talking on the phone with people back home. The room smelt like butt and fart, but we didn’t mind.

 

 

The day the package arrived–new tents for Pat and I, and a few other things–we gathered all our stuff and headed for the bus station. We learned that the border patrol would not allow us to walk across the border, so that meant we would be loading up all our stuff on a bus and let them take us 30 kilometers down the road to the nearest town across the border in Kazakhstan. Actually, crossing the border was much easier than we expected. We were worried that at the Chinese border they would want to go through all the files on our computers, hard drives, and phones along with digging through our bags, but, in fact, it was really easy. Timb and Pat were stopped and had their phones quickly scanned, but that was it.

 

 

When we made it to Kazakhstan customs, one of the military men came up and asked us what we were doing. He had never seen a trailer like ours before and never thought anyone would travel this way. When we told him that we had walked across China and planned on walking all the way to Turkey, his first reaction was “Did you feel safe walking across China?!” He wasn’t concerned at all about the other countries we were walking through and thought China was the only unsafe one. I guess safety is all relative to your paradigm. 

 

When we made it to the other side of the border, we met with a weird culture shock we would have never expected. The shock did not come from Kazakh culture, we had been engulfed in Kazakh people and their culture for the last couple of months while we walked through China and it only became stronger as we neared the border of Kazakhstan. The shock came from the lack of Chinese culture on the other side. Our assumptions had always been that on either side of a country's border the people and cultures spill over into each other. Well, I guess that was true for one side of the border but not the other. In the border city of Zharkent, there would be no way of knowing that China was only 30 km away by looking around.

 

For the first couple of days, Kazakhstan was exactly what we expected it to be; flat and desolate. We would walk through a town about once a day. To call these 'one-horse towns' wouldn’t be far off because there would be maybe 10 horses and 5 donkeys.

 

It took us three days to make it to the small town of Chundzha where we planned to leave our stuff to travel, by vehicle, to the World Nomad Games, in Kyrgyzstan. When we made it to the town we stopped and ate the best döner we’d ever had. A döner, also known as shawarma, is seasoned and roasted meat put into a wrap with fries, pickles, coleslaw, and loaded with ketchup and mayonnaise. It’s the fast-food of Central Asia, but it’s cheap (about 2.00 US bucks) and filling, so we aren’t complaining. We found a hotel, and with a few well-timed melon bribes, we convinced the owner to let us store our trailers for a week at her place while we went to Kyrgyzstan for the World Nomad Games! 

 

It took us two days to make it to Bishkek through a series of cars and buses filled with people going similar directions. The drivers were crazy and would use the whole road regardless of who else was on it. Timb’s parents had flown from America to join us at the World Nomad Games. They were very excited to see Timb and vice versa. It had been a year since they had seen each other last, so their hugs were long and heartfelt. We stayed in Bishkek for three nights waiting for the World Nomad Games to start. 

 

The World Nomad Games, in a nutshell, are like the Olympics but for nomads. Athletes from 79 different countries applied to come, even some Americans were present, in traditional Cowboy style of course. Most, if not all, of the events are not ones that are or ever would be in the Olympics. Events like Stick Wrestling, Horseback Archery, and Horseback Wrestling drew crowds to watch athletes from all over the world. Probably the most-watched and highly anticipated event was the headless goat polo, known as Kok-Boru.

 

 

The World Nomad Games, in a nutshell, are like the Olympics but for nomads. Athletes from 79 different countries applied to come, even some Americans were present, in traditional Cowboy style of course. Most, if not all, of the events are not ones that are or ever would be in the Olympics. Events like Stick Wrestling, Horseback Archery, and Horseback Wrestling drew crowds to watch athletes from all over the world. Probably the most-watched and highly anticipated event was the headless goat polo, known as Kok-Boru. 

 

Kok-Boru starts with the beheading of a sheep; a hell of a way to start a game, huh!? Then, there are two teams of 5 who, on horseback, race to the center of the field to reach down and try picking up the sheep’s carcass at full gallop and carry it to the goal. It’s a contact sport for humans and horses. We will not see the sport played in America any time soon. The winner of the entire event was Kyrgyzstan with 40 gold medals and Kazakhstan coming in second with 18 gold medals. 

 

After our time at the WNG, we decided the best thing for us to do was head back to our trailers and kit that we had left in Chundzha. When we started walking again, we quickly entered a landscape that looked like the movie Mad Max. Flat, brown, straight-as-an-arrow roads, crazy steampunks with guns and supped up cars driving down the street. Well, maybe not all of that is true, but with the epidemy of nothing all around, your imagination sometimes runs a little wild.

 

 

While walking in the wastelands we were stopped a couple of times by people driving by. Once by a police officer that looked like Peter Griffin's Kazakh cousin. All he wanted was bribes and all we had was watermelons and American quarters. He was not impressed with either as we told him how much the quarter was worth in Kazakh Tenge. To his disappointment, one American quarter is worth about 100 Tenge, but he happily took to the road after anyway. We also met up with multiple other travelers, who were traveling much faster than we were. One was an Austrian named Hubert Klimbacher who had converted his van to a home and was traveling all over the world after quitting his job and the other was a young man named Mark Schorn who had once biked around the world, but this time around was doing it in a car with his pet dog–a stray from Italy that took a liking to him and vice versa.

 

When we got to Almaty, we spent a long stretch exploring and getting to know the people of the city. Timb and I found a Magic: the Gathering shop and were very excited to play our favorite game with real cards. We also met some excellent people, Yernar and Syuzanne, who showed us around their city and brought us to some of the best restaurants in town. Yernar also brought us to the only statue in the world that has all four Beatles together. A bit odd that it’s in Almaty, Kazakhstan, but I guess the Beatles are loved all over. We spent 6 days here overall, not working as much as we maybe should have, and probably partaking in too many adult beverages. That being said, the reason we spent so much time here was that it was the first major city that we had been in for a while and no city was going to be of the same size or stature in the foreseeable future, till perhaps when we made it to Istanbul.

 

We had a time crunch, though, and we couldn’t stay in Almaty forever. We Americans do not need to apply for a visa, it's free, but we can only stay 30 days at a time. Making it an easy place to travel for Americans, as long as you can get there that is! So, after spending a fair amount of time in the city we really needed to start walking, otherwise, we ran the risk of overstaying our visa. We also had a guest coming and we wanted her to see more than just the city. As amazing as Almaty is (and I do recommend you going there someday), Christina, our guest, is a fellow Insight Adventures and Outward Bound instructor and she came to WALK! We were eager to oblige. 

 

We met up with Christina about 30 kilometers outside of Almaty. We stayed at a small hotel off the side of the road to make it easier for her to find us. This didn’t help though because she took a local bus, thinking it would drop her off near us. Without speaking any of the languages, it was hard for her to tell the driver when to stop, and when she did, she was still very far away from us. We decided to walk to the largest crossroad, thinking that this would be a better landmark for her to find her way to us. She ended up being dropped off on the side of the road nowhere near us and decided to walk the rest of the way. She got picked up by a motorcyclist after walking for a few minutes who brought her to the crossroad. When she finally made it to us in the afternoon, we celebrated by drinking some fermented horse milk! Later that night, we found a little restaurant off the side of the road and had a big meal of skewered meats and vodka to celebrate.

 

 

On our second night with Christina, we got into a town at night when a wedding was happening. It was fun to see everyone in town dressed up in their best outfits. We planned to start a mountain crossing the next day, so we slept right outside of town and intended to pick up any last-minute provisions from the same town in the morning. That night we were visited by a Kazakh who spoke perfect English. He heard that there were four Americans in town, and he wanted to come practice his English with us. He invited us to his place for breakfast the next day. We were all excited to spend some more time with him before heading into the mountains, so it was an easy, "yes".

 

In the morning when we packed up our belongings and started to head towards his house, we didn’t make it very far before being stopped by a military vehicle. They asked us where we came from, what we were doing there, and told us that we had broken the law and were not allowed to be where we were. Our Kazakh friend had come over to help communicate with the military officers and he explained that we were going to have breakfast at his place this morning. As it was explained to us by translation from our friend, he said that the military had no problem with us going to his place for breakfast. That being said, after our breakfast, we would have to go to the base for further questioning and holding while lawyers were being brought in from Almaty to further explain the law we had broken and the situation we were in. A bit surprised, we decided to go with the flow and partake in breakfast at his place. The military waited outside for most of the time but eventually came in and shared the bread, jam, tea, and fruits that had been prepared for breakfast.

 

Eventually, we had to say goodbye and get into the jeep that would take us to the base. We ended up staying there all day, waiting for the lawyers to come from Almaty. The Kazakh Military was very friendly and made us eggs and tea for lunch, and even let us shower in their barracks. The base itself was filled with flowers and had a puppy that was running around all afternoon. We were pretty bored as we waited, but, eventually, the lawyers came and then it got a bit more interesting again. They separated us and interviewed/interrogated us for about 20-30 minutes each. They asked us about our religion, jobs, family, and how we found out about the Silk Road. The law we had broken was being to close to the border of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Foreigners are not allowed to be in this area without a special permit. Without having much to say for ourselves we pretty much pled guilty, said we were sorry and that we didn’t know; then asked what we were to do next. They brought us to the closest town (Uzunagach, the town we started from yesterday) and took us to the bank to pay a fine of 6,500 Tenge (about 17 USD) each and said goodbye. All in all, not that much of a dramatic experience for being picked up by the military for a day in Kazakhstan. We decided to stay in Uzunagach, again, for an extra day to collect our thoughts and decide on a new route, now that the mountain crossing was no longer available to us.

 

 

We started walking again on Christina’s birthday. A fitting birthday for the Silk Walk Expedition. We were now on the side roads that followed the mountains on the left and stayed in the rolling grasslands. We made camp that night just outside of town. Timb and I went in to get some ice cream for Christina as a celebration. We had drunk enough vodka already since she had arrived. On our walk through town, we were stopped by a man waving us down. He asked us where we were from and when he found out we were Americans there was little we could do to stop him from making all of us stay at this place for the night. We explained that we had two more friends with us just outside of town, to which he started to get into his car and explain that we were going to go pick them up and they were going to stay at his place as well. 

 

We got into his truck and headed back to our camp for the night. Our host had brought out a bottle of vodka and poured some for everyone but Christina, which we thought was a little bit weird, but later as we packed our belongings and started to walk back into town to his house, he explained to us that Christina was going to drive because she was the only one who hadn't drank. So, Christina drove the truck back to his house as we all walked behind, and he shouted directions to her of where to go.

 

When we got to his house his wife was just stepping out of the sauna. She did not look stoked to see us but told us to go and wait in the dining room. 30 minutes later she started setting the table full of sweets, creams, meat, bread, and glasses for vodka. We drank at least two bottles of vodka and interacted with their kids and the neighbors' kids all evening and eventually went to bed in their spare room. This kind of hospitality is something I have decided must be a part of my life when I move back to Minnesota. To any travelers, understand that you have a place when you’re near.

 

We did not linger at our guest's place and started walking early in the morning.  We realized that we were not going to make it to Bishkek in time to make Christina’s flight, so we made a plan to have Christina hitchhike into Bishkek, something very common in this area of the world. We had so much fun with Christina over the past week that we decided it would be fine for us to drop our trailers and follow her into Bishkek as well, coming back to our stuff after we had a proper goodbye in Bishkek.

 

Bishkek, similarly to Almaty, really sucked us in. We ended up staying for 5 days as we used the time to organize our workload. Many daily journals to polish, some to write and hundreds to upload onto our website. We also had something to discuss, how far behind we were in our route plan. This conversation would end up taking the next two weeks of our lives as we came up with a plan. We eventually made our way back to our stuff. With only 116 kilometers to walk, we finished up our last bit of walking in 4 days.

 

 

With being so far behind our scheduled route plan, we had some decisions to make. What were we to do? Winter in the Kyrgyz mountains was not an option for us. The roads would be covered in ice and the shoulder would be nonexistent. The cold was not the issue, it was the roads themselves that were closing, and the ones that would be open would not be safe to walk on. We could completely go around the mountains but that would add near a thousand kilometers and would most likely have the same road conditions. Would it make the most sense to wait out the winter in Bishkek and start when the seasons were back in our favor? We would not be able to save a reasonable amount of money doing something like this. Should we go back to our past jobs and see how much we could save and put us in a better financial position when we got back? In leaving for such a long time did that tarnish the integrity of our mission? 

 

We made the decision to leave Bishkek and go back to our past jobs. Timb went back to America to work at Elements and Pat and I went back to China to work for Insight Adventures. We felt incredibly thankful that we had jobs willing to give us work at a moments notice. Not too many people in the world have that kind of job security. I guess saying we were lucky is an understament.

 

 

We had just over two weeks in Bishkek and we were going to use this time as wisely as possible. We all divided our workload and set ourselves up as best we could. Our biggest project outside of walking itself was making a video to explain what we’re doing.  This was the first production we have made on this walk. We always want to strive for excellence so we spent many times interviewing and re-interviewing each other in hopes we would explain ourselves well.

 

We wrapped up post production and polished the video as much as we could. Eventually we all got on flights and head back to work. It wasn’t easy but it was what we decided to do. We were determined to come back to the Silk Walk Expedition stronger and more prepared. When you undertake something this big it important to fish what you started.

Written by Paul Ronan


Please enjoy our video and pass it on!

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